An Early Classic Bird Vase 1

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin) and Peter Stuart (Hampshire College)

Figure 1. Two views of bird effigy vase. From Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:209)

Figure 1. Two views of bird effigy vase. From Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:209)

Early Classic Maya ceramics often assume imaginative three-dimensional forms, especially the modeled and incised black-ware vessels produced in the central Peten region between about 300-500 AD, or what is sometimes called “Tzakol III,” using the chronological typology first developed out of the Uaxactun excavations. One such vessel is a lidded bird effigy shown here, identified in its accompanying five-glyph inscription as an uk’ib drinking vessel. Although not the finest masterpiece of Maya ceramic art, it does bear an interesting text that may tell us something about the vase and the species of bird it represents.

In their brief discussion of this vase Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:208) identify the bird as a cormorant, a species of water–bird otherwise common on painted vases of the Classic period. However, we believe that the vase shows a very different type of bird, perhaps a rare representation of a great-tailed grackle or Mexican grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) – a noisy and cunning bird that is noticeably widespread in the Maya region (and ubiquitous here in Austin) which often seen drinking from standing and running water. The watery associations of the bird are indicated by the small turtle attached to its front, serving perhaps as a handle for the body of the vase.

Figure 2. Drawing of the hieroglyphs on the back of the bird effigy. The top-most glyph is in the medallion behind the bird's head. Drawing by David Stuart

Figure 2. Drawing of the hieroglyphs on the back of the bird effigy. The top-most glyph is in the medallion behind the bird’s head. Drawing by David Stuart

Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:208) note that the name of the owner is written “on the disk attached the back of the cormorant’s head.” This is probably not true. Given its location, the glyph is more likely to be the name of the bird and, by extension, the name of the vessel itself. This is strongly suggested by the inclusion in the glyph of the signs mu-ti, known elsewhere to spell muut, “bird” – a reading long-known since its first identification by Knorosov in the almanacs of The Dresden Codex. Also, it is common to find name glyphs written in circular medallions on the heads of people, especially in Early Classic Maya art (Stuart 2000:484).

The placement of the medallion glyph suggests that it can be read as the opening of the entire text that runs below. The very next glyph is yu-k’i-bi, for y-uk’ib, “his drinking vessel,” followed by three glyphs on the vessel’s body that note of the vessel’s contents (ixiimte’) and the name of the owner, who we can call Mam Ajaw. The text is fairly straightforward as follows, with only one sign in the final name glyph lacking identification (as far as I am aware, the sign is unique to this vessel).

A:  BAAK-mu-ti-la
B:  yu-k’-bi

baakmuutiil yuk’ib ixiimte’ mam ajaw mihiin(?) ? muwaan

Baakmuutiil is the drinking vessel for the ixiimte’ of Mam Ajaw Mihiin(?) ? Muwaan.

The text thus names the vessel and the designaties it contexts and owner, much as we see in other early examples of the dedicatory formula on Maya vases.

As a brief aside, it is worth noting that the text on our bird vessel shows a rare use of the word ixiimte’, “maize tree” working alone to indicate of the vessel’s contents. Far more common is the combination ixiimte'(el) kakaw, a standard term for chocolate drink throughout the Classic period (Stuart 2007; Martin 2006). As Martin notes in his nuanced analysis of cacao imagery in Maya art and iconography, “maize tree” refers not to a specific plant species, nor to maize itself, but to a broader idea of “magical bounty that grew from the flesh of the Maize God” (Martin 2006:177-178). This more generalized concept of a fruiting Maize God is visually indicated by representation of the Maize God as a cacao tree. On our vessel, the ixiimte’ hieroglyph thus stands as a shorthand reference to the vase’s chocolate contents. Martin illustrates an identical truncated phrase (yuk’ib ixiimte’) from another Early Classic cacao vase (Martin 2006:Figure 8.16b).

Now back to our bird: If baakmuutil is some sort of designation for the vessel that incorporates the word for “bird” (muut), then what might it mean? Baak of course is “bone,” as the form of the initial sign element shows. A “bone bird” seems an obscure term, but in Tzeltal and Tzotzil Mayan we find it is the name of a zanate, or grackle:

Tzeltal (Slocum and Gerdel 1965): bacmut, (el) sanate

Tzendal (Ara 1986:247) bacmut bacni, tordo

Tzotzil (Laughlin 1975:77): bak mut, “bone-bird” or “skinny-bird,” boat-tailed grackle, Cassidix mexicanus

As Laughlin notes, the meaning of bak here may be as an adjective “skinny,” a sense that also existed in Classic Mayan, where the noun baak can mean both “bone” and “prisoner” (a “bony” person.). The entry from Ara’s colonial Tzendal word list gives bacni (“skinny-nose”) as an alternate term for “tordo,” probably in reference to the grackle’s prominent, elongated beak (ni is both “nose” and “bird’s beak”). We have not encountered bak mut outside of Tzeltalan languages, and a number of other terms for zanates can be in lowland Mayan languages. In Ch’ol, Hull and Fergus (2011) note four distinct terms for grackle species: ak’xi’, kel, wachil, and xunub.

Laughlin identifies bak mut as a boat-tailed grackle. However, ornithologists today distinguish boat-tailed grackles from their southern neighbors, great-tailed grackles. In the Maya region they do not overlap, and of the two only the great-tailed grackle occurs there. The boat-tailed grackle, although very similar in appearance, is found only on the coasts of the extreme southeastern U.S. and most of Florida.


Figure 3. Great-tailed Grackle. Photograph by David Mendosa.

We believe that the identification of the bird vase as a great-tailed grackle is also suggested by two of its physical features. First, the dark, shiny surface of the vase, typical of many Tzakol III vessels, may be used to replicate the bird’s distinctive glossy black feathers. Second, the prominent ringed eyes on the vase — an unusual feature in Maya bird representations — seems a good rendering of a grackle’s striking yellow eyes, as seen in the accompanying photo.

One point regarding the hieroglyphic spelling. The -Vl suffix on baakmuutiil is interesting. Such suffixes are widespread in Classic Mayan and in modern Mayan languages, with numerous functions. Often they derive abstract nouns from other nouns or adjectives, or else they can derive concrete nouns from adjectives or abstract concepts. Here the suffix on the core noun baakmuut may point to an interesting case of an “abstracted” grackle, or an exemplar or image that carries the essence of “grackle-ness.”

Finally, we see some playfulness or humor in the design of this grackle vase. The label “skinny bird” seems intentionally ironic for the portly form of the vessel. And these noisy birds were no doubt common in many ancient Maya communities, gathering in numbers around ponds and pools to drink and bathe. How appropriate, then, for an ancient Maya artisan to craft an uk’ib in the form of a highly visible “drinker” from nature.

To conclude, Classic Mayan terms for particular bird species, such as baakmuut or yuhyuum, “oriole”, are gradually being clarified, due to the fact that they often have corresponding forms in modern Mayan languages. As the ancient faunal terminology grows researchers will continue to gain small but interesting insights into how the ancient Maya related to the natural world around them.

Sources Cited:

Ara, Domingo de. 1986. Vocabulario de lengua Tzeldal según el orden de Copanabastla. Edición de Mario Humberto Ruz. UNAM, Mexico, D.F.

Fields, Virginia, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred maya Kingship. Scala, New York.

Hull, Kerry, and Rob Fergus. 2011. Ethno-ornithological Perspectives on the Ch’ol Maya Reitaku Review, col. 17, pp. 42-92.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Zinacantan.

Slocum, Marianna,  and Florecia Gerdel 1965. Vocabulario Tzeltal de Bachajon. ILV, Mexico, D.F.

Stuart, David. 2000. ‘The Arrival of Strangers': Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, ed. by D. Carrasco, L. Jones and S. Sessions. pp. 465-513. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

_________. 2007. The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, pp. 184-201. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

The Royal Headband: A Pan-Mesoamerican Hieroglyph Reply

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

Note: This unpublished paper was written back in 2008 on honor of the late Henry B. Nicholson, the great scholar of Aztec history and culture who was a good friend and eager supporter of my work back when I was just starting out in the Mesoamerican field. I post my old paper here with minimal edits, and with the caveat that some lines of thinking have changed in the seven or so years since this was written. For example, I am currently rethinking issues on early Mesoamerican script history, as reflected in some recent public talks (Stuart 2014a and b)) and in a book now under preparation on the Pre-Classic Maya texts from San Bartolo. The age of this paper is reflected also in parts where I attempted to describe the nature of Aztec (Nahua) writing, in recognition of Nicholson’s seminal contributions to the study of highland Mexican scripts. Soon after this was written, several colleagues produced important works on the Aztec hieroglyphic system, most notably Lacadena (2008), Zender (2008) and Whittaker (2009).

For Nick

This essay focuses on a hieroglyphic sign that shows a remarkable geographic, temporal and linguistic spread throughout ancient Mesoamerica. It might seem unusual to treat the main Mesoamerican writing systems (Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan, Isthmian, Zapotec, Mexica-Aztec, etc.) together in this way, but there do exist a handful of signs and elements shared among these traditions, holding similar if not identical semantic values and therefore reflecting some profound historical historical and cultural connections. The sign in question is what I call the “royal headband,” representing the simple paper-cloth device worn by Mesoamerican rulers and nobility (Figure 1). As we will see, this sign appears in several of the major Mesoamerican scripts with the semantic value of “lord” or “ruler.” It is most likely a logogram with a firm phonetic value corresponding to the words for “lord, ruler” in the writing systems where it occurs.

Figure 1. The royal headband sign in Zapotec, Maya and Aztec writing.

Figure 1. The royal headband sign in Zapotec, Maya and Aztec writing.

As background to this discussion, it is important to note that the conventions of all Mesoamerican writing systems share a few essential features and characteristics. These commonalities are rarely considered in any broad comparitive way, for they are very general and small in number. Their existence reflects, I believe, something of a common history and origin to Mesoamerican writing, traceable to the Middle Preclassic era if not earlier, near to the time when the formal conventions of Mesoamerican art and representation first coalesced, giving rise to what is commonly known as the “Olmec” style. Some of these deep-seeded features of Mesoamerican script traditions include:

  • Signs that are visually and perhaps linguistically anchored to and part of a larger and codified artistic and iconographic system. Understanding and using one system necessitates knowing the other.
  • Signs generally occupy a roughly square or rectangular field, either a single elements or in stacks, accretions, etc., often in association with other iconographic programs.
  • Signs tend toward profile views of heads and various objects, but not always so.
  • Basic logography, where word signs, usually visually or iconographically transparent, easily join others to emblematically represent proper names (people, calendrical units, places).
  • Logograms by nature have a set, standardized word value in a particular language. In this sense all Mesoamerican scripts are language-based, and so-called “ideographs” are of minor importance, if even at all present.
  • In some scripts the use of some pure phoneticism, where signs can be used just for their sound values, to specify pronunciation or clarify ambiguity.

Not all of these are equally relevant to the present discussion, and surely others can be brought to bear on the complex question of historical connections among various scripts. Suffice it to say for now that he royal headband glyph, appearing in texts sopanning two millennia, provides a compelling comparative set for looking at such deep historical and artistic connections. Over this long history, the headband sign displayed a remarkable visual consistency (Figure 1), perhaps giving some indication of the importance of kingship as a social and political institution in both time and space.

The royal headband in most if not all these scripts served as a logograph, bearing a specific word-value corresponding to “lord” or “king.” Thus, in the Maya script, it was always read AJAW; in Nahua systems of the Late Postclassic and Early Colonial period the very same sign, representing the so-called “turquoise diadem,” was read TEŪCTLI. We can trace this element back to the very beginnings of Mesoamerican script and symbolism, as far back as the the Early and Middle Formative Olmec traditions. The headband was, therefore, one of a few “elemental” symbols in early Mesoamerican visual communication, and apart from some obvious animal heads used in calendrical notations (day signs such as “Jaguar” or “Deer,” for example) I can think of no other single visual form that had such a widespread appearance in the history of Mesoamerican writing. In my case-by-case overview that follows, I will begin with late and well-documented examples from the Nahua and Maya traditions, and then trace its appearance in the more opaque and early scripts of Oaxaca and in Olmec writing and iconography.

I. The Headband in Nahuatl Writing (TEŪCTLI)

The writing systems of the Nahua-speaking communities of Late Postclassic Mexico were, I believe, more highly developed and phonetically representational than many scholars have supposed. Henry Nicholson went far in demonstrating this linguistic dimension in a brilliant essay that still stands, I think, as one of the most insightful treatments of Mexica-Aztec writing and its capabilities as a partially phonetic system (Nicholson 1973). Few authors have built on Nicholson’s ideas in this regard, although Lacadena and Wichman’s (2004) recent work has since gone far toward developing a truly systematic understanding of the phonetic dimensions of Nahua writing and its known sub-traditions (Lacadena 2003, n.d.).

These phonetic approaches to understanding the Nahua script (or scripts) run counter to a widespread view that highland Mexican writing was functionally indistinguishable from other modes of pictorial representation. In this way, according to Boone, “in the semasiographic systems of the Mixtecs and Aztecs, the pictures are the texts. There is no distinction between word and image” (Boone 1994:20). In assessing the nature of script in Postclassic Mexico, Boone elsewhere notes that “if one defines writing narrowly as spoken language that is referenced phonetically by visible marks, the Mexican system clearly does not fit” (Boone 2005:29)

I disagree somewhat with such characterizations, based on my own different assumptions and understandings of what constitutes writing in these late highland traditions. Whereas many would tend to collapse the categories of text and image, especially in the setting of manuscript painting, I see a greater distinction at work, where pictorial images interact intimately with a separate category of hieroglyphic elements anchored strongly in linguistic representation. In this sense, following Nicholson’s earlier insights, highland glyphs are very much phonetic, although usuallly employed for the spelling of proper names — short and direct labels for actors, places, or dates. But they are writing (linguistically encoded) nonetheless, and I believe that ancient painters and scribes were quite conscious of their special language-based role in the wider but integrated visual system of communication.

The difficulty in discerning a category of “true” writing in highland Mexico stems partially from the basic representational nature of all Mesoamerican scripts. But the issue may also involve a common misunderstanding of the Nahuatl word, tlahcuilohtli, often translated as both “escritura” and “pintura” (Molina 110r) (Note 1). This double meaning would seem to blur any distinction as well, but its literal meaning is “a thing which has been painted,” derived from the transitive verb ihcuiloa, “to paint something.” That is, tlahcuilohtli is a technical term that is equally applicable to the production of writing and pictorial images; it reveals little about indigenous conceptual categories. More helpful perhaps is the word machiyotl, generally meaning “sign,” “symbol” or “mark.” If there is one word in Nahuatl that approaches the notion of “hieroglyph,” this is it. It is based on the irregular root mati,”to know something,” and literally machiyotl “a thing by which something becomes known.” It conveys the idea of a visual form that conveys information. Notice how in the Florentine Codex machiyotl or machiotl appears in contexts that leave no doubt it refers to a date hieroglyph:

Injc ce capitulo, itechpa tlatoa, injc centetl machiotl in jtoca ce cipactli, ioan in qualli tonalli in quimaceoaia, in vncan tlacatia, in toqujichti, in cioa…

First chapter, in which telleth of the first sign, which was named One Crocodile, and of the good fortune which they merited who were born then — men or women… (Dibble and Anderson 1979:1)

Note that Dibble, Anderson and others often translate both machiyotl and tonalli as “day sign,” but these are in reality very different words: machiyotl refers to the visual form of the day sign’s glyph, whereas tonalli refers to the more abstract essence of the day name as a label for one’s soul or fortune in life.

Molina’s dictionary specifies the connection to writing even more directly with the entry machiyotlahtoliztli, “letra” (Molina 77v). Taken literally, this is “the act of speech in the form of a symbol.” This term appears in a colonial dictionary and may reflect an attempt to describe alphabetic writing in an indigenous framework. But it is also possible that these are older expressions that point to a more sophisticated indigenous notion of Nahua writing than has been previously supposed (Bridget Hodder, personal communication, 1995).

These complex issues about the nature of Nahua writing and pictography can be addressed in far more detail at another time, but I bring them up here as necessary background for identifying the headband sign as a logogram – a sign that in the Nahuatl writing systems was wedded to a particular word-value, namely TEŪCTLI. The point may not seem terribly important for the overall discussion the sign and its appearances throughout Mesoamerican visual systems, but it serves to emphasize that Nahuatl writing was much like other scripts in Mesoamerica in not being loosely “ideographic,” but highly systematized and tightly anchored to a particular language.

Figure 2. The xiuhhuitzolli headband on a royal portrait of Ahuizotl, from the Mendoza Codex (Drawing by the author).

Figure 2. The xiuhhuitzolli headband on a royal portrait of Ahuizotl, from the Mendoza Codex
(Drawing by D. Stuart).

As has long been known, the royal headband sign is found in numerous pictorial manuscripts, always as part of a proper name incorporating the root teūc(tli), “lord, noble, ruler.” The form of the glyph is usually described as a diadem, and in simple representations it is white-colored and tied at the back, clearly made of cloth or paper and stiffened and wide in the front. It’s most elaborate form is known as the xiuhhuitzolli (often spelled xihuitzolli), a standard and diagnostic marker of supreme royal status in numerous portraits (Figure 2). Literally the name of this headgear means “a turquoise pointed thing” (xihuitl, “turquoise,” huitzolli, “pointed thing), describing its pointed front and mosaic turquoise surface. As a hieroglyphic sign the headband can be simplified somewhat without the jewel. Several place glyphs in the Mendoza Codex show this basic usage standing as the word TEŪCTLI. For example, it is used in the place glyphs for the town Tecalco, “At the Noble House” (TEŪC[TLI]-CAL[LI]), and Tecmilco, “At the Noble Field” (TEŪC[TLI]-MIL[LI]). The sign also appears in the Mendoza combined combined with an arrow sign above, for the warrior’s title tlacochteūctli, “dart lord” (TLACOCH[TLI]-TEŪC[TLI]).

Figure 4. Name glyphs of Moteuczoma [TEŪC(TLI)-ZŌMA]

Figure 3. Name glyphs of Moteuczoma [TEŪC(TLI)-ZŌMA]

One of the most important contexts for this sign is in the name glyph for the Mexica ruler Moteuczoma II, numerous examples of which have been identified in manuscripts and in Precolumbian sculptures from Tenochtitlan (Figure 3). Although the significance of this glyph was debated for many years, Umburger’s (1981) analysis of its appearances on monuments demonstrated its function as a name glyph for the historical ruler Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin. In rare cases, it also appears with the name of the earlier ruler Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina (Figure 4b).  For the later ruler’s name the headband usually takes a few additional elements, including a representation of human hair, a gold nose-plug (teoyacatl), and, in the most elaborate versions, an atl-tlachinolli symbol and a warrior’s breastplate. The headband here is clearly for TEŪCTLI, the semantic core of the proper name Moteuczoma, literally “He who Angers Like a Lord.” The bellicose symbolism conveyed by the full-blown examples of the name, including the atl-tlachinolli breath-scrolls, perhaps serve to convey the emotional semantics of the root zōma(h), “to anger, frown.” Some examples of Moteuczomah’s name in fact seem to show upright darts above the hair, evoking the tlacochteuctli military title noted above. The pattern suggests that an “angry lord” is by nature a warrior full of rage and in battle. At any rate, the name is based on the noun teūctli and therefore features the headband logogram as its visual base.

Tlaxcala scene

Figure 4. The twisted headband element as hieroglyph and headgear. A scene from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing Moteuczoma and his entourage.

The xiuhhuitzolli headband, with its pointed form and turquoise adornment, does not appear outside of Mexica-Aztec writing and iconography, but it has clear parallels in other visual systems of Late Postclassic highlands. In the manuscripts of the Tlaxcallan tradition we find a simpler twisted headband as a sign for royalty, used as well for the hieroglyph TEŪCTLI in the name of the Aztec emperor (Figure 4). Such examples from outside the Valley of Mexico demonstrate an important degree of formal variation among sub-traditions of Nahuatl script and symbolism. That is, TEŪCTLI is written as a royal xiuhhuitzolli headband in the Mexica-Aztec sources, but it takes a more familiar local look when rendered by Tlaxcallan artists and scribes. We will see that some degree of similar regional variation was common in the appearance of this same royal headband sign among distant and far older Mesoamerican cultures.

 II. The Headband in Maya Writing (AJAW)

When many years ago I traced the uses of the TEŪCTLI sign in Nahuatl writing, mostly following the insights by Umberger in her discussion of Moteuczomah’s name, I was struck by the fundamental similarity of the headband to the forms and uses of a similar Maya sign, read AJAW, “lord, noble, ruler. Its a common hieroglyph, of course, given the frequency of noble titles in ancient Maya inscriptions. As we will see, the similarity in the uses and forms of the Nahuatl and Maya glyphs are strong and telling, suggesting the existence of some historical connection we will explore further on in this study.

We today recognize two principal forms for AJAW, both completely interchangeable in the script (Justeson and Mathews 1984) (the glyphs used to spell the twentieth day sign Ahau are not always the same, although there is considerable overlap the signs used to spell the title). One is an abstract form sometimes called the T518 variant (citing the sign number from Thompson’s [1963] catalog), which came to be abbreviated in most instances as a superfix (T168), especially in Late Classic texts. Visually this glyph may have originated as a representation of jade jewels, specifically the “flares” and beads seen in some early details of royal costume. The other form of AJAW is a head variant representing a young man with a wide scarf or headband tied at the back (Figure 5). Typically he has a spot on his cheek — a distinctive marking for the mythical figure known in Classic sources as Juun Ajaw (One Ajaw). He is is young hunter who emerges among the later Post-Classic K’iche’ as Hunahpu (or One Hunahpu), one of the so-called Hero Twins whose exploits in defeating the lords of the underworld were recounted in the epic narrative of the Popol Vuh (Coe 1990). He is the central figure in one key story emphasized in both the Popol Vuh and in earlier Classic depictions — the shooting of the fantastic prideful bird known as Seven Macaw in the Popol Vuh or, in Classic texts, possibly as Muut Itzamnaaj (see Christenson 2003:97-100; Zender 2005; Stuart n.d.). In Classic Maya art both Juun Ajaw and this Principal Bird Deity (Bardawil 1973) served as basic symbols of kingship and authority, a role easily seen in the very name “One Ajaw,” with its slight extended sense of “first lord” or “primary lord.”

FIgure *. AJAW head forms. (a, b) as day signs, (c, d) as a royal title, (e) portrayed of the mythical hero Juun Ajaw.

FIgure 5. AJAW head forms. (a, b) as day signs, (c, d) as a royal title, (e) portrayed of the mythical hero Juun Ajaw.

The forest hunter Juun Ajaw, despite his modest attire, thus served as a quintessential type, a visual template for the image of rulership. His distinctive headband of cloth paper is not a marker of his noble status; very much the opposite is true. In the scenes of Hun Ajaw on pottery, for example, the headband seems a standard part of one’s tropical work attire, either as a lining for a straw hat or useful covering for carrying of heavy loads on a tumpline. One gets the impression that the ideology of the kingship and its mythological foundation had some roots in these more everyday activities.

The headband seen on Juun Ajaw’s glyphs and portraits is typically colored white or red, or may even be white with red coloring on its front. Its proper term was evidently sakhuun, “white headband,” mentioned in many inauguration expressions in the historical records, as in k’ahlaj sakhuun tubaah, “the white headband was tied upon his head.” A very important feature also was a small jewel attached to the very front, either in the form of a shiny bead-like element, a so-called “jester god” (Schele 1976), or as an face-like “ajaw” sign, probably representing a flower in origin. All of these are representations of small jade attachments to the headband, transforming what might otherwise be seen as modest attire into a kingly crown. The frontal jewel, with its strong floral symbolism, can be traced back to Preclassic representations in Maya art, where it may have strong symbolic connections also to maize (Fields 1991, Taube 1996). As we will soon see, this same headband with a forehead jewel also is easily traced in Zapotec and Olmec imagery. It strongly suggests furthermore that the xiuhhuitzolli turquoise diadem of Aztec royalty is a variation on the same idea, evoking the coloration and adornment of an otherwise simple cloth or paper headgear.

Figure 7. The headband alone (a) as AJAW in Maya Script: (b) in the Copan royal title, and (c and d) in two variants of the AJAW logogram from Palenque's Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.

Figure 6. (a) The headband alone as AJAW in Maya Script. (b) In the Copan royal title, and (c and d) in two variants of the AJAW logogram from Palenque’s Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.

In the Maya script we see that the headband sign by itself can be used alone to write the word AJAW, in combination with others head signs to which it can be attached (Figure 6a). In the emblem glyph of Copan, for example, we see this visual play at work, where the bat element “wears” the headband sign around its forehead (Figure 6b). Similarly, in one instance of the Palenque emblem we find the BAAK skull wearing the AJAW headband, for the conflated form (BAAK-AJAW), “the Baak(al) Lord” (Baak or Baakal being the ancient name of the Palenque royal court) (PAL:TIw, D5).  We see elsewhere that the addition of the Maya headband on certain animals, such as vultures and raccoons, transforms them into AJAW signs as well (Figure 6c,d). Since the visual cannons of Maya script favored rounded or rectangular elements, the headband alone became a convenient way for scribes to combine any other head with AJAW. The jeweled headband therefore serves alone as the most important characteristic of the AJAW head, as could be used in pars pro toto for the larger portrait sign representing Juun Ajaw.  The individual headband even takes on a somewhat pointed appearance on its front, giving a slight indication of the form it would take in late Nahuatl script.

Such visual abbreviation, using a distinguishing part of a complex sign for the whole, was common throughout most of the history of Maya writing. It was also, we know, a much older convention in Olmec iconography (Joralemon 1971). The visual cannons of Maya script favored a rounded or rectangular elements, so we can see how the headband alone became a convenient way for scribes to combine any head with AJAW. As we will now see, however, the lone headband was more than an abbreviated form, for it can be readily traced also in the history of early Zapotec script and even Olmec writing and iconography. Maya scribes who made use of the headband for writing AJAW were in this way not being so playful or innovative; in fact they were following a long convention established centuries earlier among other Mesoamerican cultures.

 III. The Headband in Zapotec Writing

Zapotec hieroglyphic writing, used throughout the Valley of Oaxaca during the Late Preclassic and Classic periods, remains largely undeciphered. Most scholars assume it was logo-syllabic in nature and that its language was Zapotecan, although details are still unclear, and virtually no signs can be securely linked to a particular word (Urcid 2001). The calendar of the inscriptions has long been the most studied and fruitful aspect of Zapotec epigraphy, and numerous dates are recorded in the panels of Monte Alban and neighboring sites, many probably with historical significance.

FIgure *. Zapotec headband signs. In the third example it is combined with a Year bearer hieroglyph.

Figure 7. Zapotec headband signs. In the third example it is combined with a Year bearer hieroglyph.

Figure 8. Zapotec urn depicting a person with a headband, possibly the deity Cocijo. Drawing by D. Stuart.

Figure 8. Zapotec urn depicting a person with a headband, possibly the deity Cocijo. Drawing by D. Stuart.

The calendrical work began with Caso’s seminal recognition of several day signs, including the four year-bearers used in the system (Caso 1928). His early efforts brilliantly demonstrated that only four day glyphs were accompanied by what he called a headdress symbol, clearly similar to the signs we have so far discussed in the distantly related Nahua and Maya systems (Figure 7). These, he reasoned, must be the four year-bearers, the four days on which a new year can falls in the interlacing mechanism of the 260- and 365-day calendars. Caso originally identified the headband as the headdress of Cocijo, the deity of storms and lightning. This seemed to have been based in part on iconographic evidence, where similar headbands appear on decorated many urns thought to depict this god (Figure 8). It is worth pointing out that Cocijo was also a rain spirit associated with the four world quarters, and thus overlapped conceptually with the structure of the four Year Bearer.

The Zapotec headband is rigid-looking in its early forms (Figure 7a), and shows a remarkable overall similarity to the Nahua and Maya variants we have seen so far — the same knot and dangling straps, for example, as well as a frontal “jewel,” in these cases a cross-like element often topped by either a flower or maize-like image. The cross was long ago interpreted by Caso and others as the sign for turquoise (Urcid 2001), referring to a frontal jewel, suggesting that we have another variant of the jeweled headband sign. This jewel must clearly have maize associations, since it is clearly also overlaps with depictions of maize stalks.

At first the Zapotec use of the headband sign to mark Year Bearer dates seems very different from the uses of other headbands described thus far in the Nahua and Maya systems, where all simply read as words for “lord” (TEŪCTLI or AJAW) in various proper names and in titles. The Zapotec use of the sign on date glyphs is indeed presents a far more restricted context, and it presumably signifies something more precise in meaning; in this light Caso’s specific attribution of the headband as “Cocijo’s headdress” would seem to make more sense.

FIgure *. Directional Juun Ajaw figure from the San Bartolo murals. Photogrpah courtesy of Ken Garrett.

FIgure 9. Directional Juun Ajaw figure from the San Bartolo murals. Photograph courtesy of Ken Garrett.

But an explanation from Maya evidence may allow us to consider an alternative scenario, where the Zapotec Year Bearers were seen simply as “lords.” In the Classic Maya calendar the Year Bearers were the very same set of four Caso proposed in the Zapotec system: the 2nd, 7th, 12th, and 17th days of the 20-day sequence (Stuart 2005). Throughout Mesoamerica, of course, the concept of the four Year Bearers was intimately tied to the four spatial divisions of the cosmos, which in turn overlapped a great deal with other sorts of directional gods and spirits — for example, deities of rain, wind, and storms (Caso’s Cocijo). Other patrons of the four directions were important as well, such as the so-called Pauahtun entities mentioned in contact-period Maya sources of Yucatan. In the New year pages of the Maya Dresden Codex we see that the four Year Bearer days become associated with still other gods who make offerings with world trees at the four world directions. And the remarkable Pre-Classic mural paintings of San Bartolo, Guatemala, dating a dozen or more centuries earlier, show a distant precursor to this concept, with its depiction of four world trees, each with a directional god who is an aspect of Juun Ajaw (Figure 9). Together these are the four “lords” of the directions. The San Bartolo scenes paintings are probably depictions of Year Bearers, for in Late Classic Maya sources we find mention of the “Four Youths” or the “Four Lords” in connection with New Year dates dates. The “lords” were, in essence, the Maya versions of the Year Bearers concept (Stuart 2005). For this reason, I speculate that the headband glyphs marking Zapotec New Year dates may also serve to mark them as “lords” of the years, much in the way the Maya seem to have believed. It is surely a leap to derive meanings from one culture to another, but I do sense we are dealing with basic and long-lasting concepts that may have had wide-ranging importance in early Mesoamerican thought.

FIgure *. The headband sign with calendar glyphs in Ñuiñe writing. After Moser (1977).

FIgure 10. The headband sign with calendar glyphs in Ñuiñe writing. After Moser (1977).

If the Zapotec headband is a sign for “lord” — and I stress this is tentative identification — one might reasonably posit a Zapotecan word for “lord,” “noble” or “king” as a likely reading for the headband at Monte Alban and environs. My own knowledge of Zapotec historical linguistics is miniscule, but I do find the root xan appears in Zapotec as a word for “dueño, jefe,” generally with the meanings we find for ajaw in Mayan; I will leave this for future consideration, by those who are more informed on the history of Zapotecan languages and script.

In the Late Classic Ñuiñe system of writing we see elements that are clearly related to the Zapotec script, combined with other visual features that strongly resemble Classic period hieroglyphic forms found at Xochicalco (Moser 1977). The year-bearer days on several Ñuiñe tablets also look to be headbands, the back-knot clearly shown, although now conflated with the round cartouches of the day signs themselves (Figure 10). There is good reason to think that the “looped cords” used as a year symbol on day signs at Xochicalco, discussed by Nicholson (1966), may also have had an origin in the headband image, but the connections perhaps less obvious.

 IV. The Headband sign in Olmec and Isthmian Symbolism

No matter how we might interpret the headband sign in Zapotec inscriptions, its form seems to be descended from an isolated headband glyph that appears in some very early settings, on “Olmec” celts dating roughly to the Middle Formative period. Whether these objects can be said to “true” writing is difficult to establish, for the celts are without archaeological context, removed from their geographical point of origin (Guerrero or Veracruz?) and so stripped of any larger artistic context. But the visual links seem clear, and have been noted by others before now (Justeson 1985: 36-37).

Figure *. Two Olmec celts with examples of the headband sign.

Figure 11. Two Olmec celts with examples of the headband sign.

One incised celt said to be from the Guerrero region and probably dating to the Middle Formative period shows a very clear example of our headband glyph, placed above a group of other signs, among them a leg and a possible ground-line (Coe, et. al. 1995:231) (Figure 11a). The back-knot is clearly visible, but there is no obvious frontal jewel. The double merlon motif on the band may serve some similar symbolic purpose, as might also the whisp-like lines above. The isolated placement of this headdress, without any head, seems in every way similar to what we have seen in Maya, Zapotec and Nahua writing, suggest that here too the entire group may incorporate a word for “lord.” If so, the lower signs may stand for a proper name, perhaps a personal or place name.

The same headband again appears one time as well on the well-known Humboldt Celt, another Olmec object likely of Middle Formative date (Figure 11b). There the placement is somewhat more complex, for it looks to be one of four sign related clusters arranged around a central “kan cross” symbol. Each cluster has an inverted u-shaped element at its foundation, each in turn attached by its base to the central cross; these inverted u forms are surely related to the “ground line” device seen in the example just described, perhaps an indication that they are toponymic in nature. The right side of the cross shows the headband sign, isolated without any head, with a clear frontal jewel or maize cob. Another possible jewel or cob is repeated at the top of the headband. Needless to say, the great age of the Humboldt Celt prevents any assertion of direct continuity with later scripts, yet it seems reasonable to suppose that the sign represents a visual precursor to the Zapotec and Maya forms, one of which is clearly a “lord” glyph.

Figure *. Royal headbands(?) on signs from La Mojarra, Stela 1

Figure 12. Royal headbands(?) on signs from La Mojarra, Stela 1

Moving forward several centuries in time within the “Olmec heartland” we come to a more fully developed script system, called “Epi-Olmec” or Isthmian. It’s most important example is found on La Mojarra, Stela 1 (Winfield Capitaine 1988; Kaufman and Justeson 1993), which contains several complex head signs that seem to wear a variation on the royal headband (Figure 12). In their analysis of this and related inscriptions, Kaufman and Justeson have pointed out that these heads, while different in some details, seem to semantically relate to ideas of “noble” or “king,” evidently because of the similarity of their headdresses or royal headgear in Isthmian iconography.  The complex headdress seen in these signs include a number of variable elements — reduced glyphic signs, it seems — all resting on a simpler knotted band. Here, the rear strap seems to point upwards rather than dangle, but the headband overall bears a strong resemblance to the devices thus far described in Zapotec, Maya and Olmec imagery. The frontal jewel is absent in the glyphic examples, but it does appear on headbands in the iconographic depictions of rulers at Cerro de las Mesas and related scenes. No examples of an isolated headband sign without the head are known in Isthmian texts, so perhaps the best comparison would be to Maya head variant forms of AJAW.

V. Conclusion

This paper has had a simple aim to trace the existence of a single hieroglyphic form through the major script traditions of Mesoamerica, spanning a two thousand year period. Of course several other glyphs in these various systems show close similarities with one another, including many shared day signs among Mesoamerican calendars. The headband form is something different, it seems, operating mostly independently from the rigid context of the calendar and presenting a unusual and distinctive form, traceable in at least two major Mesoamerican scripts (Maya and Nahuatl) with the specific phonetic value meaning “lord.”

I devoted a few paragraphs in this study to a debate that currently exists about about the nature or Nahua writing itself. Obviously this discussion wthat requires far more time and space, and it will continue among many scholars. I hope, however, that I was able to make a case for orienting Nahuatl writing as a participant in the larger tradition of phonetic (logographic) scripts in Mesoamerica. Some will debate the scope and rigidity of my definitions and presumptions, but at least for the sake of the present discussion we can see that the headband sign of Nahuatl glyphs is a word sign, functionally akin to distant cousins on other scripts.

The visual connections among all of the many headband signs seem clear enough, but establishing their shared semantic sense in all cases is not always clear. I nevertheless feel that the reappearance of this sign over the course of two thousand years offers a small indication of some commonality among them, and perhaps of a remote shared history. Even more tellingly, the constant and widespread use points to the basic importance of the word “ruler” in the history and development of Mesoamerican civilization.


(1) The problematic translations of Nahuatl terms relating to writing and painting was first pointed out to me by Bridget Hodder in 1995. She was primarily responsible for developing the more nuanced distinction between Nahuatl terms for “painting” and “marking.”

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Sculptors and Subjects: Notes on the Incised Text of Calakmul Stela 51 7

by Simon Martin (University of Pennsylvania), Stephen Houston (Brown University), and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

Figure 1. Calakmul Stela 51 (photograph by Frances Morley, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University)

Figure 1. Calakmul Stela 51 (photograph by Frances Morley, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University)

Calakmul is justly famed for the quantity of its carved monuments, although their lamentable state of preservation means that very few can now be appreciated in their original form. One of the exceptions is Stela 51, which Sylvanus Morley described as “the most beautiful monument at Calakmul” (1933:200) (Figure 1). It was discovered with others at the base of Structure I by Cyrus Lundell in 1931 and first documented on the Carnegie Institution’s expedition to the site in 1932 (Morley 1933:200; Ruppert and Denison 1943:111, Fig.50c). The stela was stolen at some point in the 1960s, when it was cut into portable slabs, but later recovered. It currently stands in the Sala Maya of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

The central portrait is that of the Calakmul king Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, who erected the monument in 731 CE, making it one of the last of his reign. Our interest here lies not in this image, or even the main inscription found on the front and sides. Rather, it focuses on a small text incised into the background. This mat-like arrangement of 14 glyph-blocks suffered losses when the monument was broken up by looters, but we are fortunate that a photograph taken by Frances Morley on the 1932 expedition shows the undamaged text (Figure 2a). This has allowed a new drawing to be made, incorporating a few details better seen in more recent sources (Figure 2b).[1]

Analysis of this inscription is aided by a partial duplicate found on Calakmul Stela 89 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:121, Fig.53b; Grube 1992). This second monument was also commissioned in 731 CE and associated with Structure I, although it was not set at the base but high on an upper tier of the temple. It is stylistically related to Stela 51 and hewn from the same type of hard limestone.[2] It now resides at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, and a new drawing based on photographs from the museum archive is also presented here (Figure 3). The text on Stela 89 is somewhat abbreviated, but nonetheless contributes some valuable additional data.

Figure 2. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 51 (F1-J1): a) Photograph by Frances Morley (courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University); b) Drawing by Simon Martin.

Figure 2. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 51 (F1-J1): a) Photograph by Frances Morley (courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University); b) Drawing by Simon Martin.

Figure 3. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 89 (K1-8). Drawing by Simon Martin (based photographs from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne).

Figure 3. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 89 (K1-8). Drawing by Simon Martin (based photographs from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne).

Small, incised texts of this kind are now well known to be sculptor’s signatures. All of them feature the “lu-bat” compound that David Stuart (1989a:154) first recognized as a reference to carving and incision. Subsequent research has since extended it to stucco work as well, and it even appears on mold-made ceramics where only the master form was carved. In its possessed version, with a yu-prefix, the compound can be understood as “his carving,” and is followed by the name of the artisan responsible for the work (when suffixed by an –il, it signals a relation to an object, as in “the carving of a dwelling” [see Yaxchilan Lintel 25:P1-Q1]). The idea that these are personal signatures finds its strongest support in a set of eight found on El Peru Stela 34, each of which is rendered in a distinctive hand (Stuart 1989b, cited in Coe 1992:251, Fig.62).

We see the possessed lu-bat compound on Calakmul Stela 51 at G1, the name of the sculptor beginning at G2 with SAK-?-ni. The bird-head here resembles that for MUWAAN “hawk” but lacks the diagnostic feathers in its mouth (sometimes joined by a claw) that mark a predator of fellow birds. This plainer version stands a good chance of reading IKIN “owl,” a term that is widely, if thinly, attested across the Maya region and may be a reference to a particular species (Kaufman 2003:611).[3] The name continues at G3 with yu[ku]-?-?-TOOK’, a sequence shared with the aforementioned king, Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil. It is missing the terminal k’awiil both here and at K3 on Stela 89, though this is also true of many versions of the royal name. The next sequence in both versions provides a political affiliation, the non-standard emblem glyph K’UH-?cha-TAHN-na WINIK for k’uhul ‘chatahn’ winik. This is a title with deep roots in the region, which was used at Calakmul itself (Martin 1996, 2008) as well as at a number of sites lying to its south (Boot 1999). During the Late Classic rulers of ‘Chatahn’ commissioned the well-known codex-style ceramics, with the most prodigious production taking place under its ruler Yopaat Bahlam towards the end of the seventh century CE. Yopaat Bahlam’s home center remains unknown but the appearance of his name at Tintal on a different ware, red-on-cream, makes this sizable city 68 km south of Calakmul one of the contenders (Hansen et al. 2006). After an obscure sign at H1b the nominal concludes at H2 with SAK-WAY-si sak wayis, a title carried by the rulers of sites situated south of Calakmul and north of El Peru. At most of these centers it carries a k’uhul prefix, but this is never employed in the case of ‘Chatahn’—presumably because it was already carried in k’uhul ‘chatahn’ winik.

A new “lu-bat” compound at H3 introduces a second name, this one beginning SAK-? The unknown head-form with forward-swept hair and pursed lips is something of a rarity. The corresponding sign on Stela 89 at K6a is ‘o, raising the possibility that it is another form with that value. Next at I1 we see yi-BAAH/ba. Though it is conceivable that there is some kind of possession here, we can see no clear evidence that it links two people in this case. The name continues at I2 with TZAK-BAHLAM-ma “Conjure(d) Jaguar,” which is repeated on Stela 89 at K7.

The next compound on Stela 51, at I3, is somewhat effaced but seems to incorporate the term AJAW “lord.” As a title it would present a counterpart to the k’uhul ‘chatahn’ winik epithet seen in the previous phrase. The two signs that would form its subject are NAAH “first” and another that initially resembles WITZ “mountain/hill.” Political titles beginning with naah are not at all common, but one is seen at Uxul, a site 30 km to the southwest of Calakmul (Grube 2005:92-93, Fig.6). Examples on Uxul Stela 6 and Stela 10 include AJAW and function as emblem glyphs based on the local toponym (Grube 2008:Fig.8.51, 8.55).

The relevant main sign there, surviving in complete form on Uxul Stela 14 (Grube 2008:Fig.8.62), is a rare one that shares features with the syllabogram lu, but is distinguished by its pronounced inner curl and the absence of a comb-like element. This uncatalogued “lu-semblant” is undeciphered yet seems to have separate logographic and syllabic values, and may even group more than one similar-looking hieroglyph. If we return to Calakmul Stela 51 and compare it to the main sign of I3 we find a close match. Despite the absence of an additional suffix present at Uxul, this appears to be the same title.

Intriguingly, the phrase on Stela 89 differs at this point, and, instead of this emblem, we find the humbler sequence AJ-NAAH-ku-ma at K8. This constitutes a title of origin or association reading aj naahkuum or “Naahkuum person.” The recurrence of the naah element gives reason to believe that the core reference is the same in both texts; in turn suggesting that ku-ma might be a syllabic substitution for the lu-semblant logogram. This would make KUUM or KU’M potential values for that particular variant. The short-vowel word kum appears as “pot” in certain Mayan languages (Kaufman 2003:983). If the relationship between the two naah-initial terms in these texts is all that it seems to be then we have a named lord of Uxul, a center which may have been known, at least in part, as naahkuum.[4]

The name of our prospective Uxul lord continues at I4 on Stela 51, with a different spelling of the sak wayis title known to be used at this site, this time bearing the k’uhul “holy” prefix. The final compound, at J1, seems to feature a snakehead, but is otherwise too eroded to read. Neither of these signs has a counterpart on Stela 89.

* * *

The incised texts on Calakmul Stela 51 and 89 are conventional sculptor’s signatures in a number of respects, but are unusual in two significant ways. First, they are the only ones to name major lords and indicate that they were personally responsible for the creation of the work. There are a few cases in which artisans carry high social position, but no others in which the governing elite of distant political centers are specified in this manner. We need not take this at face value, but instead consider the ways that these characters may have commissioned these two monuments and stand as symbolic or rhetorical producers—an adaptation of the normal function of signatures. What both ‘Chatahn’ and Uxul shared was their close affiliation to Calakmul and their subordination to that great capital for at least a century of the Late Classic. That status is clearly pivotal to understanding why they appear in this context.

This leads to the second feature, the introductory ye-be-yu sequence at F1 that we have thus far passed over. This is unique to Stela 51 and we surmise that it is linked to the unusual prominence of the featured characters. Although still not completely understood, one possibility is that the term is based on the root eb “to give/deliver” that developed from Proto-Mayan *ab “work” (Kaufman 2003:58; see also Kaufman and Norman 1984:119 for the derived Proto-Ch’olan nouns *ebet “messenger” and *ebtel “work”). Another possibility is that it relates to the Proto-Mayan root *ye’ ~ *ya’ “to give” (Kaufman 2003:775). In Proto-Ch’olan we find the form *ye’-be  “to give” (Aulie and Aulie 1978:123; Kaufman and Norman 1984:137; Kaufman 2003:775) in which *-be functions as an “indirect object marker” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:139). The latter is attested in both branches of the Ch’olan language, although it has yet to be identified in Classic Mayan inscriptions. This second interpretation would see the initial y- as part of the root, implicating a passive or mediopassive construction along the lines of “it is given him/them” or “it gets given him/them.” The role of the terminal yu as a verbal suffix is unclear—it could yet prove to have a phonological role that forms a bridge to the prevocalic yu of the lu-bat compound—and this is one of the uncertainties that render the precise semantics a little opaque. Nonetheless, either verbal root would imply that the text on Stela 51 is a statement of gifting or tributary payment, and if this is so then this small inscription is a revealing statement about the relationship and obligations between Calakmul and two of its leading clients.


1. Additional details were taken from a sketch by Ian Graham made in its current condition, together with photographs by Jorge Pérez de Lara and Michel Zabé. The glyph designations are revised from those used in Ruppert and Denison (1943:111).

2. These monuments are part of a set from this same date executed in stone that may have been imported to the site. Joel Skidmore (pers. comm. 2014) reminds us of the potential relevance of this point to the ideas that follow.

3. A matching SAK-?IKIN-ni compound appears as the name of a different individual on the vase K2784 and K2803 in Justin Kerr’s database (

4. The similarity of this name to that of Nakum, a major center in the eastern Peten, would be no more than coincidental.

Calakmul Stela 51 signature text:

F1 ye-be-yu
G1 yu-?xu[lu]
G3 yu[ku]-?[?]-TOOK’
G4 K’UH-?cha-TAHN-na
H1 WINIK-ki-x-?-ti?
H3 yu-?xu[lu]
H4 SAK-?o
I1 yi-BAAH/ba
I4 K’UH-WAY-si
J1 x-x-CHAN?-x

Calakmul Stela 89 signature text:

K1 yu-?xu[lu]
K3 yu[ku]-?[?]-li-TOOK’
K4 K’UH-?cha-TAHN-WINIK-ki
K5 yu-?xu[lu]
K6 SAK-o-x-BAAH/ba
K8 AJ-NAAH-ku-ma


We would like to express our thanks to Barbara Fash of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, and Anne Slenczka of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne, for their assistance with images. Additionally, Jorge Pérez de Lara generously provided one of his photographs for study and Joel Skidmore made helpful comments.


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Morley, Sylvanus G. 1933. The Calakmul Expedition. Scientific Monthly 37:193-206.

Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Petén. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 543. Washington D.C.

Stuart, David. 1989a. Hieroglyphs on Maya Vessels. In The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, Volume 1, edited by Justin Kerr, pp.149-160. Kerr Associates, New York.

____________. 1989b. “The Maya Artist: An Epigraphic and Iconographic Study.” Senior Thesis, Princeton University.

Early Classic Co-Rulers on Tikal Temple VI 1

by Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania Museum

The oversized inscription that runs down the back and sides of Tikal Temple VI—featuring the largest glyphs in the Maya world—presents many problems of interpretation, although most of them a simple consequence of its highly dilapidated condition (Figure 1). Three studies have established key details of its chronology and subject matter (Berlin 1951; Jones 1977:53-55; Stuart 2007a), but a number of problematic areas remain. Photographs and field drawings dating to 1965, now held in the Tikal Archive at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, offer an important resource for further investigation. I rely on these materials to examine a single extended passage that runs from C13-D19, a section that refers to a fascinating period in the dynastic governance of Tikal (Figure 2).(1)

Figure 1. Tikal Temple VI, back of roof comb (Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara)

Figure 1. Tikal Temple VI, back of roof comb (Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara)

Figure 2. The Period Ending, Tikal Temple VI (C13-D19): a) Photographs by Gordon Echols b) Drawing by William R. Coe.

Figure 2. The Period Ending, Tikal Temple VI (C13-D19): a) Photographs by Gordon Echols b) Drawing by William R. Coe.

The passage begins with the Calendar Round position 13 Ahau 18 Yax, which equates to the Period Ending from 514 CE (Satterthwaite and Jones 1965). This placement is confirmed by the following pair of glyphs: u-4-WINIKHAAB uchan winikhaab “(it is the) fourth K’atun” and the verb K’AL-TUUN-ni k’altuun “(it is) a stone raising/presenting”.(2) Next, at C15, we find yi-chi-NAL for yichonal “before, in the sight of,” a term with the general sense of “oversight” (Stuart 1997:10; Houston and Taube 2000:287-289; Stone and Zender 2011:59). Where calendrical ceremonies are concerned this oversight role is almost invariably assigned to a deity. In this case it is a character called SAK-HIX-MUUT “White Jaguar Bird,” whose battered but recognizable name appears at D15. This was a special deep-time patron of the Tikal dynasty who constitutes the focus of the Temple VI inscription (Martin and Grube 2000:50; Stuart 2007a). Repeating a formula seen in several other portions of this text, ceremonies are further supervised by a human agent introduced by means of the u-KAB/CHAB-ji-ya ukabjiiy/uchabjiiy term. Though much degraded by years of exposure to the elements the sign at C16 shows the nose of the anthropomorphic version of KAB/CHAB, the standard form used on Temple VI.

The personal name of this agent, seen at D16, is by any standards highly eroded. However, by comparing photographs taken in daylight with others shot at night under raking artificial light the outlines of an initial female agentive IX can be discerned (Figure 3a, b). The rest of the block consists of two signs, neither of which is truly legible today. Nevertheless, the IX prefix is enough to suggest that we have here the so-called Lady of Tikal, who was the incumbent ruler at the turn of in 514, having come to the throne at the age of just six years old in 511 (Martin 1999, 2003:18-21).

Figure 3. The celebrant of the Period Ending, Tikal Temple VI (D16): a) Photograph by Gordon Echols; b) Drawing by the author.

Figure 3. The celebrant of the Period Ending, Tikal Temple VI (D16): a) Photograph by Gordon Echols; b) Drawing by the author.

Figure 4. The names of the Lady of Tikal: a) Tikal Stela 23 (C4); Tikal Stela 23 (B6); Tikal Stela 12 (B6) (drawings by the author).

Figure 4. The names of the Lady of Tikal: a) Tikal Stela 23 (C4); Tikal Stela 23 (B6); Tikal Stela 12 (B6) (drawings by the author).

She bore two distinct names. The first is a childhood moniker associated with the record of her birth in 504 (Figure 4a). This features MUT, the well-known toponym of Tikal, as well as AJAW “lord/ruler.” However, it differs from a conventional emblem glyph by the inclusion of a twisted cord glyph of unknown value (see Stuart 2005:28-29). The same sign turns up as a prefix to the Tikal emblem MUT-AJAW on Stela 15 (B5) (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:Fig.21a) and again, perhaps more significantly, with IX and MUT on Stela 26 (zB9) (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:Fig.44a), this time in the name of a patron goddess.

The accession phrase for the Lady of Tikal survives only in part on Stela 23 (Figure 4b). The verb is surely the same form as that found on Tikal Stela 31 (E10) (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:Fig.52b), which either features an early version of the bird-head JOY “wrapped, encircled” joined to ti-AJAW “into lord(ship),” or, alternatively, an attenuated version in which the bird-head lacking its usual “toothache” wrap serves only as ti and ti ajaw(il) stands in place of the proper sequence johyaj ti ajawil. The adjoining sign on Stela 23 includes a crosshatched forelock that makes clear that the Lady of Tikal is its subject.

To follow her later career we must turn to other monuments, especially Stela 6, where she celebrated the aforementioned period ending, and the better-preserved Stela 12, where she marked in 527 (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:Fig.9, 10, 17, 18). Both of these identify her by means of a regnal name with two parts: a vegetal sign that looks very much like UUN “avocado” and another whose portrait version closely resembles K’IN/K’INICH “sun/radiant” (see Zender 2004:335) (Figure 4c).(3) The former usually has a slanted, upward orientation, which is reminiscent of the strangely pointed head on Stela 23, as if that sign has been conflated with IX in this instance (Figure 4b).

Returning to Temple VI, for the rest of this passage we must cross down from Panel W to Panel X, where the text continues uninterrupted. Very little of this section now survives, but we can surmise that it once included further names or titles for the queen. The best-preserved glyph comes at C19, where we see an old man’s head distinguished by its underbite, snaggletooth, and stingray spine piercing the nose (Figure 5a, b).(4) These attributes identify the Stingray Paddler, one of a pair of Charon-like deities that propel a canoe carrying the Maize God across a primeval body of water (Mathews 2001[1979]:399, Fig.40.4; Stuart 1984:11; Schele 1987) (Figure 6a-c). The name of this ferryman is undeciphered, but both here and elsewhere it bears a ti phonetic complement and must therefore end in –t (see Figure 6c).

Figure 5. The Stingray Paddler on Tikal Temple VI (C19): a) Photograph by Gordon Echols; b) Drawing by the author.

Figure 5. The Stingray Paddler on Tikal Temple VI (C19): a) Photograph by Gordon Echols; b) Drawing by the author.

Figure 6. The name of the Stingray Paddler: a) Quirigua Stela C (B8); Dos Pilas Stela 8 (G18); c) Ixlu Altar 1 (C4) (drawings by the author, 6b after Ian Graham).

Figure 6. The name of the Stingray Paddler: a) Quirigua Stela C (B8); Dos Pilas Stela 8 (G18); c) Ixlu Altar 1 (C4) (drawings by the author, 6b after Ian Graham).

At first sight, we might assume that the role of the Stingray Paddler here is the familiar one in which both Paddler deities are said to “oversee” a period ending ceremony. However, this is not repeated for other such events in the Temple VI text and, more to the point, oversight of this particular ceremony has already been assigned to the Sak Hix Muut character. We should therefore seek an alternative explanation. Notably, the Stingray Paddler name plays a part in the moniker of the Lady of Tikal’s male co-ruler, an older consort or guardian that I have earlier nicknamed Kaloomte’ Bahlam (Martin 1999:5; 2003:20). His personal appellative can be recognized in three Tikal inscriptions (Figure 7a-c).

Figure 7. The names of Kaloomte’ Bahlam: a) Tikal Stela 12 (D5); Tikal Miscellaneous Text 11 (yA); Tikal Stela 10 (C7-D7) (drawings by the author).

Figure 7. The names of Kaloomte’ Bahlam: a) Tikal Stela 12 (D5); Tikal Miscellaneous Text 11 (yA); Tikal Stela 10 (C7-D7) (drawings by the author).

Here the Stingray Paddler is usually conflated with, and somewhat overshadowed by, BAHLAM “jaguar.” Additionally, there are elements resembling those of MAM “grandfather/ancestor” (Stuart 2007b), including a forehead dot that we also see on the glyph at C19 on Temple VI. It is not entirely clear if this is part of the aged identity of the Stingray Paddler—a type of “carrier” sign—or whether it takes an independent role, presumably as a title signaling the advanced years of the bearer. Helpfully, Stela 10 shows the MAM-style head in second position (Figure 7c), offering some constraint to the reading order, but erosion prevents us from seeing if the diagnostic nose-spine appeared there or on the preceding jaguar head. Stephen Houston points out that a further element on the Stela 12 example, an upward pointing “serpent nose,” is that associated with the Central Mexican fire deity xiuhcoatl (Figure 7a). In Early Classic Maya script this is carried by the sun god K’INICH (AJAW)—especially at Tikal—and it is possible that this is a further part of his name, although perhaps an optional one.

A formula in which the Lady of Tikal conducts a Period Ending while Kaloomte’ Bahlam appears in some secondary context is mirrored on Stela 12 (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:Fig.17, 18). The rear face of that stone details her ritual acts and genealogy (the latter now sadly broken away), while its left side describes the monument itself as his possession—a point emphasized by the male portrait carved on its front. The left side further tells us that Kaloomte’ Bahlam was counted as Tikal’s 19th king, placing him as the next male ruler after Chak Tok Ich’aak II, who had died in 508.(5) Taking these clues together, we can infer that the Lady of Tikal was a queen by right of descent from an earlier king—presumably Chak Tok Ich’aak II—whereas Kaloomte’ Bahlam probably gained his position only via his association with her. The simplest explanation is that they were a married couple, even though the age difference between them may have been considerable (Stela 10 suggests that Kaloomte’ Bahlam was militarily active as early as 486). The partially surviving sign at C18 on Temple VI seems to be a possessed noun of some kind and could define the relationship between them. The destroyed block at D18 offers room to complete the name of Kaloomte’ Bahlam, while D19 may be the beginning of a new Distance Number.

Exactly when he assumed his kingly office is unclear. A different male, a bearer of the noble ti’huun epithet who used the same personal name as the later king Animal Skull, was another close associate of the Lady of Tikal. Depicted on Stela 8, he may have been the guardian of her early reign (see Zender 2004:333-338). Clarifications of her relationships were doubtless once supplied on other monuments from this period, most of which are now in a sorry state of preservation. An important inauguration statement on one of them, Stela 10, concludes with the plural suffix –taak, apparently directly after an ajaw title, as if to mark the ascent of more than one character. Complicating matters, the badly effaced date of this accession does not seem to match the one cited on Stela 23 for the Lady of Tikal. Much remains to be learned here.

Despite the unconventional nature of a female monarch this does not appear to be a period of significant weakness for the kingdom and the Lady of Tikal might even be credited with foreign influence, possibly presiding over a lesser ruler at Tamarindito in 534.(6) We do not know the length of her tenure, but it is assumed that she was out of office by the time the 21st Tikal king “arrived” at the city in 537 (Martin 2003:23).(7) At that point she would still have been only 33 years old. That her reign was memorialized on Temple VI, over two centuries after the fact, confirms that there was nothing illegitimate about her status or that of the co-rulership arrangement in general. While no mention of building activities are made in this passage, the unexplained insertion of these two characters into the narrative could imply that an earlier version of Temple VI was built under their direction (Stuart 2007a; Martin, forthcoming).


My thanks go to Stephen Houston and Marc Zender for helpful comments on a draft of this posting and Jorge Pérez de Lara for supplying the image used in Figure 1. I also wish to acknowledge Philippe Galeev, whose own investigations and queries about the Temple VI text provoked my return to the monument, and an informative correspondence with Dmitri Beliaev based on his work with the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén project.


(1) For the complete inscription, as drawn by William Coe, see Jones 1977:Fig.9, 18, 19 or, in its proper architectural context, Miller 1986:Fig.42a, b.

(2) Marc Zender suggested the nominalized form of k’altuun used here.

(3) Versions of both the childhood and regnal names for the Lady of Tikal appear in their expected temporal sequence on an unpublished stela Vilma Fialko excavated at Tres Cabezas, a site in the periphery of Tikal. This again recounts the queen’s completion of the Period Ending of 514.

(4) My thanks go to Dmitri Beliaev for checking this observation with the collection of photographs he took in 2014 in collaboration with Oswaldo Gómez of IDAEH and a complete re-documentation of the Temple VI inscription under the auspices of the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén.

(5) To judge from evidence elsewhere queens were omitted from official dynastic counts. David Stuart (pers. comm. 1999) noted the death-date for Chak Tok Ich’aak II on Tonina M.160 (Graham et al. 2006).

(6) Tamarindito Stela 2 (Gronemeyer 2013:Pl.5) records the Period Ending performed by a local king who appears to be supervised by someone bearing the distinctive name of the Tikal founder YAX-EHB-(XOOK) superimposed with the female agentive IX.

(7) At some point we must account for the missing 20th Tikal king, though it is quite possible that he was a further spouse or guardian of the queen in the later part of her reign.

Sources Cited

Berlin, Heinrich. 1951. El Templo de las inscripciones—VI de Tikal. Antropología e Historia de Guatemala 3(1):33-54.

Graham, Ian, Lucia R. Henderson, Peter Mathews, and David Stuart. 2006. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Vol. 9, Part 2: Tonina. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gronemeyer, Sven. 2013. Monuments and Inscriptions of Tamarindito, Peten, Guatemala. Acta Mesoamericana 25. Verlag Anton Saurwein, Markt Schwaben.

Houston, Stephen, and Karl Taube. 2000. An Archaeology of the Senses: Perception and Cultural Expression in Ancient Mesoamerica. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10(2):261-294.

Jones, Christopher. 1977. Inauguration dates of three Late Classic rulers of Tikal, Guatemala. American Antiquity 42:28-60.

Jones, Christopher, and Linton Satterthwaite. 1982. The Monuments and Inscriptions of Tikal: The Carved Monuments. Tikal Report No.33, Part A. University Museum Monograph 44. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Martin, Simon. 1999. The Queen of Middle Classic Tikal. In Pre-Columbian Art Research Newsletter 27:4-5. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

__________. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff, pp. 3-45. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series, School of American Research Press and James Curry, Santa Fe and Oxford.

__________. Forthcoming. The Dedication of Tikal Temple VI: A Revised Chronology. In The PARI Journal.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London and New York.

Mathews, Peter. 2001[1979]. Notes on the Inscriptions on the Back of Dos Pilas Stela 8. In The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing, edited by Stephen Houston, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, and David Stuart, pp.394-415. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Miller, Arthur G. 1986. Maya Rulers of Time: A Study of Architectural Sculpture at Tikal, Guatemala. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Satterthwaite, Linton, and Christopher Jones. 1965. Memoranda on the Text of Structure 6F-27 at Tikal (“Temple of the Inscriptions,” “Temple VI”). Unpublished manuscript in the Tikal Project Archive, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

Schele, Linda. 1987. New Data on the Paddlers from Butz’-Chan of Copán. Copán Note 29. Copan Mosaics Project and Instituto Hondureño de Antropologia e Historia.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Uwe Zender. 2010. Reading Maya Art. Thames and Hudson, London.

Stuart, David. 1984. Royal Auto-sacrifice among the Maya: A Study of Image and Meaning. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 7/8:6-20.

_________. 1997. Kinship Terms in Mayan Inscriptions. In The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, edited by Martha J. Macri and Anabel Ford, pp. 1-11. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

_________. 2005. The Inscriptions from Temple XIX at Palenque: A Commentary. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

_________. 2007a. “White Owl Jaguar”: A Tikal Royal Ancestor. Maya Decipherment:

_________. 2007b. The Maya Hieroglyphs for Mam, “Grandfather, Grandson, Ancestor”.

Zender, Marc Uwe. 2004 A Study of Classic Maya Priesthood. PhD thesis, University of Calgary.

Notes on a Sacrifice Scene 11

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

The Late Classic cacao vase K8719 (from Justin Kerr’s The Maya Vase Database) depicts one of the more grisly scenes of human sacrifice known from Maya art. (Happy Halloween!). The surrounding imagery and texts provide some interesting tidbits of information about the timing and setting of such events, and also how they related to the pomp and circumstance of royal performance in the courts of the Classic era.

Figure 1. Rollout of vase K8719  (Photograph by Justin Kerr).

Figure 1. Rollout of vase K8719 (Photograph by Justin Kerr).

In the scene we see a king seated upon what looks to be a portable throne and looking on a scene of decapitation sacrifice.  The victim, perhaps a war captive, lies prone upon a stone altar and before a small stela. His head lies atop the stone monument, placed on a surface of amate paper-cloth (huun) and suggesting some sort of corporeal metaphor involving the upright stone (see Stuart 1996 for a further discussion of steel-body symbolism). Judging by similar scenes (see K8351), the familiar stela-altar pairing one so often see at Maya sites was often a formal place for human sacrifice. Indeed, I suspect that most stelae-and-altars erected in the plazas (Figure 2) were conceived as settings for the execution of prisoners, much as we see on this vase. To the left of the dead victims are two performers in fantastic animal costumes, wearing red scarves. As Elliot Lopez-Finn points out to me, similar portly animal performers are depicted on other vessels (see K1835, K4947. K4960). And elsewhere many similar clawed figures with red scarves are explicitly identified as wahy beings, who I have interpreted as the spooky embodiments of witchcraft and dark forces wielded by Maya rulers and elites (Stuart 2005). On this vessel the costumed figures are performing in an extraordinary setting of courtly sacrifice, perhaps as executioners that embody the animated forces of the king’s power and control over life and death.

Figure 2. Uncarved stelae and altars at Tikal.

Figure 2. Uncarved stelae and altars at Tikal.

Figure 3. Main text caption from K8719. (Photograph by J. Kerr)

Figure 3. Main text caption from K8719. (Photograph by J. Kerr)

A lengthy text runs down the middle of the image above the slain victim (Figure 3). Unfortunately it shows considerable modern repainting and “touching up” by someone who knew nothing of hieroglyphs. Nevertheless, we can see that it is a complex name caption for the seated king, opening with a CR date and then perhaps the possessed noun u baah, “the person of…” (A2 and B2). The date looks to me to be 4 Ahau 13 Yax, correspond to the k’atun ending (August 16, 731 A.D.). The royal name and accompanying titles extend down into the vertical column. At B3 we see the well preserved sequence CHAN-na-K’INICH, after an initial name glyph that is largely illegible. This may well be the name Tayel Chan K’inich, in reference to the Late Classic king of the Ik’ polity who is named on a number of other vessels (Just 2012:102-123, Reents-Budet, Guenter, Bishop and Blackman 2013, Tokovinine and Zender 2013). A possible Ik’ emblem glyph might be at block A7, though again much garbled by the vase’s “restorer.”

A date of 731 A.D. agrees well with Tayel Chan K’inch, who we know from other sources to have been in power by 726 and seems to have ruled for at least a decade afterwards, perhaps a good deal more (Tokovinine and Zender 2012: 43). The k’atun ending would have been among the major ceremonial event of his reign, and I suggest that the scene on this vase depicts at least one of the ceremonies from that very day.

Ascribing this vessel to the Ik’ polity and its workshops also is in keeping with the general style and color palette of the scene. Orange-colored glyphs are known from other pots of this style. We also see elaborate animal costumes worn by rulers and other performers on many other Ik’ vessels (K533, 1439, among others). As already noted, I suspect that this pair of weird-looking performers are the sacrificers responsible for the beheading. The white color here, also worn by the king, may be significant, as we find white sacrificers also shown on K2781 and K8351.


Figure 4. The glyph aj laj, “finished one,” near the victim. (Photo by J. Kerr)

Placed near the stela and just above the legs of the sacrificial victim is a lone hieroglyph (Figure 4) readable as AJ-la-ja, for aj laj. This presumably is an agentive noun based on the root laj, meaning “end, finish, die,” found throughout lowland and highland Mayan languages (Kaufman [2003] reconstructs the common Mayan form as *laj or *laaj). The connections of this word to death are widespread, and are particularly acute in colonial Tzotzil, where we find laj meaning “be dead” and the nominalized form lajel, “death” (Laughlin 1988,I: 241). There can be little doubt that here we are meant to read the glyph on the pot as a somewhat obvious descriptor of the slain figure as “the finished one, the deceased.” As far as I am aware this is a unique example of such a title used to refer to a sacrificial victim.

Overall this vessel offers a remarkable and maybe even surprising look into the nature of Maya calendar ceremonies. Written records of k’atun endings, for example, feature the ritual acts of kings who “bind the stone” or “cast the incense.” They never directly mention human sacrifices nor the bloody anointing of stelae, and why they don’t raises an interesting issue worth pondering further. The wider canvas of a portable cylindrical vase perhaps allowed for such grisly displays, more so than the stiff and narrow face of a stone stela set in a plaza. For whatever reason, cacao vases that circulated at the courts of the Late Classic period were deemed a more appropriate media for the display of some darker subject-matter, including the gorier aspects of royal ceremony and performance.

Sources Cited:

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

Kaufman, Terrence. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. PDF ms.

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Stanley Guenter, Ronald L. Bishop and M. James Blackman. 2013. Identity and Interaction: Ceramic Styles and Social History of the Ik’ Polity, Guatemala. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by A. E. Foias and K. F. Emery, pp. 67-93. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Stuart, David. 1996. Kings of Stone: A Consideration of Stelae in Ancient Maya Ritual and Representation. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, nos. 29/30, pp. 148-171.

___________. 2005. Glyphs on Pots. Sourcebook for the 2005 Maya Meetings. Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Tokovinine, Alexandre, and Marc Zender. 2013. 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 Polity, edited by A. E. Foias and K. F. Emery, pp. 30-66. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.