Puzzle Writing

sby Stephen Houston, Brown University

For Justin Kerr, with boundless admiration

Transparency is not always the aim of writing. Signs can also baffle and please by means of scribal ingenuity. Sometimes the puzzle relates to esoteric matters or “magical” diagrams, as in “Sator Squares” from the ancient world. These devices were four-directional palindromes, read left-right, right-left, up-down, down-up, invoking, perhaps, deities and Latin verbs for “work” and “wheels.” Examples exist in far-flung places like Pompeii, Dura-Europos in Syria, (Figure 1, Yale University Art Gallery), and Cirencester, England (Sator Squares). Decidedly pre-Christian, Sator Squares even infiltrated Christian settings of the Early Modern period (St. Barnabas, England). As symbol and puzzle, they clearly had “legs.” Their appeal carried them across millennia.


Figure 1. Sator Square from Dura-Europos, Syria, c. AD 165–256, Yale University Art Gallery, #1933.298. 

The Classic Maya seem to have had some fun too. The setting is not a slab or painted wall at Pompeii but a pot that is among the most finely painted to survive from the Classic period. Personally, I find it hopelessly subjective to speak of the “greatest Maya painting on a pot.” (It is an exercise in futility to engage in an aesthetic tournament between past and present standards of beauty.) But here, in this instance, the hyperbole fits (for an image, Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII; also Boot 2008, the first to acquire, study, and disseminate images of the ceramic). Dating to about AD 750, the vase has a named calligrapher, ‘RABBIT’-bu (T’ulub?). Such references are rare. Its presence here signals special esteem for the painter. The pot belonged, as do many of the most carefully executed pot paintings, to a youth. In this case, the boy or teenager was associated with the Peten Itza (‘i-IK’-‘a) region of northern Guatemala.

This is not the place to discuss the rich complexities of the pot. Its fascinating spellings deserve separate study. Note, for example, the unusual pronouns (an absolutive -eet for the 2nd-person singular, “you,” another absolutive, –oon, “we” [Boot 2008:12]) and the late collapse or near-homophonic play of distinct words (juun [“one]~ hu’n [“paper, book”] > huun?, highlighted here in 1 pik ka[‘]nal k’uh, 1 pik kabal k’uh, “8,000 Celestial Gods, 8,000 Terrestrial Gods.” (In 1986, I had noted a similar alternation of the number “1” and a sign for “book” on two ceramics, one in a private collection in Guatemala City).

Instead, what draws our attention is a set of four Monkey figures conversing with God D on his throne (Figure 2). A text near God D makes it clear that he speaks to an assembled group of Chuween, doubtless the four Monkeys seated to lower left (Note 1). The TE’, “tree, wood,” probably serves as a numeral classifier for the number “4.” However, as an alternative, the Popol Vuh recounts the transformation of an earlier set of “wood” people into monkeys, for “their flesh was merely wood” (Christenson 2007:90; see also Boot 2008:28). Is that the reference here? Nothing on their bodies would indicate wooden substance. The contrastive appearance of the monkeys is intriguing, veering from human and elderly to simian or deity-like. A few are elderly (as cued by beards), one may be younger. The varied faces, along with the differing headdresses, hint at the poorly understood subtleties of mythic Monkeys.


Figure 2. Detail of vase (rollout by BAMW Photography). 

The figure to far left, presumably of lowest rank, has a large olla (liquid jar) in front, as does the monkey to the far right. A lively touch is that the small simian head-glyph above the latter combines a glyph for consumption–a small head with water sign in the mouth–and the monkey’s head itself (Figure 3, see Houston et al. 2006:fig. 3.5). He must have been a thirsty fellow.


Figure 3. The drinking monkey glyph (detail, BAMW Photography).

The lead Monkey is central to our discussion of puzzle-writing (Figure 4). He is the only figure on the vase whose mouth both opens and emits a flow of….what?  One suggestion is that it forms “a stream of red liquid” (Boot 2008:8). In my view, it more likely corresponds to speech scrolls in Maya imagery, a means of showing a forceful if invisible utterance and, at times, of linking it to glyphic text (Houston et al. 2006:154–163). The glyphs are, with a few exceptions, relatively easy to read: yax k’ax winik, “the first jungle/forest men” (aside from its resonance with the Popol Vuh, k’ax being more of a Yukatekan word [Barrera Vásquez 1980:387], uhtiiy, “it happened [at],” a likely independent pronoun, ha’o’b, “those,”a reading first pointed out to me by David Stuart (e.g., Hull et al. 2009:38–39; Mora-Marín 2009:120), for spelling, see Robertson et al. 2007:48); and a mythic place name, possibly featuring the flower of the tobacco plant (Simon Martin, personal communication, 2013; see Stuart and Houston 1994:77, fig. 92). [Note 2] A collection of the independent pronoun appears in Figures 5 and 6. The wa-wa-li is more difficult to interpret, but it may record w-aw-il, “my shouts [howling]?” or “my shouters [howlers?],” aw being a root for hearty vocalizations going far back to the beginnings of Mayan languages (Kaufman and Norman 1984:116; for the pronoun, a pre-vocalic first-person singular, see Law 2014:table 31). A few other texts appear to use this expression, including two versions on a pot with inebriated (and noisy?) youths (Figure 7).


Figure 4. The main monkey and his text (detail, BAMW Photography). 


Figure 5. Independent pronoun, ha’o’b, “those,” in Maya texts (Calakmul, upper left, field drawing by David Stuart; rollout, lower left, by Justin Kerr, downloaded from Museum of Fine Arts website, recording the “First Gods, First Lords”; and La Corona Panel 2, drawing by Linda Schele, perhaps referring to multiple sculptors, a suggestion made to me by Dmitri Beliaev).


Figure 6. Parallel phrase on Copan Stela A, referring to “those, the cache-openers [pasno’m], cache-coverers [makno’m]” (-no’m ending first interpreted by David Stuart, photographer unknown). 


Figure 7. wa-wa-li/IL spellings (photograph by Justin Kerr, drawing by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvani).

The enigma is in their reading order. A conventional view would have them as in the figure to the left: left to right, top to bottom (Figure 8). But that is probably wrong. The speech scroll—in multiple strands to signal the flow of distinct words?—issues from the mouth, then, in the figure to lower right, touches the glyph for “First Forest.” The next glyph, “person,” is directly below, emitting its own scroll that winds its way up to the “it happened [at],” followed by the place name at #4. What do we do with the ha’o’b and wawil/wawal? The looping strands, which go “off-scene” only to reappear, at #6, suggest that the former came before the latter. By the conventions of this pot, strands appear to be start slender, then expand. Of course, it is possible that #5, 6, came prior to the others, but the scrolls from the mouth suggest otherwise. The key is to follow their twists and turns.


Figure 8. Comparison of two possible reading orders. 

For scholars, writing is serious stuff. Careers collapse or soar on the fortunes of a decipherment or after review of a small, solemn bin of essays. Yet Maya glyphs were about wit too, as playful as any monkey god. Readers would start this text, and…let go. The sinuous red lines carried them away, in a scribal frolic that continues to charm.

Note 1. The che-he-na spelling is not recording, I suspect, the first person “I,” –een, as in “I say” (cf. Hull et al. 2009:36). On ceramic texts and Ceibal Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, among other places, a switch from an involved declaration (“I say”) to the statement of a name may require too many pivots in point-of-view. Not unprecedented, but awkward. For this reason, I prefer an interpretation by Nikolai Grube: “así dice,” akin to Ch’ol che’en (1998:549). Furthermore, unusual pronouns in Maya script tend to involve divine or “mythic” actors, or those operating in a more remote if non-mythic past. Piedras Negras Panel 3 is a pertinent example, for it surely depicts a number of people long-dead at the time the panel was carved. To my knowledge, the first presentation of such pronouns was in a paper for the Society of American Archaeology meetings (Houston and Stuart 1993).

Note 2. The spellings of ha-‘i may not yet be fully resolved. One reasonable view sees them two separate morphemes, ha’ and ‘i (e.g., Hull et al. 2009:36, 38, albeit with provisos; Mora-Marín 2009:fig. 4). This would provide a deictic clitic at the end, an -i, “this, here,” reconstructed for Common Mayan (Mora-Marín 2009:table 4). But a late version from Caracol Ballcourt Marker 3 (ha-‘a?) suggests an alternative: that the earlier form was haa’, as triggered by disharmony and the appended ‘i syllable. By a process well-attested at Copan and Naranjo, this term might later have shortened to ha’.  A challenge is that, on present study, no such length is reconstructible for earlier forms of ha’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:139).


Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida.

Boot, Erik. 2008. At the Court of Itzam Nah Yax Kokaj Mut Preliminary Iconographic and Epigraphic Analysis of a Late Classic Vessel. Maya Vase Essay 

Christenson, Allen J. 2008. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Coe, Michael D., and Stephen Houston. 2015. The Maya. 9th edition. Thames & Hudson, London.

Grube, Nikolai. 1998. Speaking through Stones: A Quotative Particle in Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions.” In 50 años de estudios americanistas en la Universidad de Bonn, edited by Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz, Carmen Arellano Hoffmann, Eva Konig, and Heiko Prumers, 543–58. Verlag Anton Sauerwein Schwaben.

Houston, Stephen, and David Stuart. 1993. Multiple Voices in Maya Writing: Evidence for First- and Second-Person References. Paper presented at the 58th meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Hull, Kerry, Michael D. Carrasco, and Robert Wald. 2009. The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan. Mexicon 31(2):36–43.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and W. Norman. 1984. An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, edited by John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, 77–166. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, Publication 9. State University of New York, Albany.

Law, Danny. 2014. Language Contact, Inherited Similarity and Social Difference: The Story of Linguistic Interaction in the Maya Lowlands. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Robertson, John, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing no. 62. Universals

Stuart, David, and Stephen Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 33. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Tributary Texts

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

At Calakmul, Mexico, sculptures were not just made by craftsmen who recorded their contribution via “signatures” or “autographs” (Stuart 1989; also Houston 2016). Several sculptures probably came from political subordinates, in offerings shipped by magnates to the overlord (Martin, Houston, and Zender 2015; Zender et al. 2016: 46–47 [link]). [Note 1] Consider one possibility, Calakmul Stela 51, a monument with unusual, almost voluptuous touches. Exuberant volutes roll through the ruler’s hair, in what I take to be a sycophantic nod to royal vanity. The surface puffs out with striking, volumetric handling. And, as though bursting forth, elements of the headdress extend beyond the sculptural frame (see, too, Stela 89, created by the same carvers; Ruppert and Denison pls. 50c, 53b).

This is virtuoso work, meant to impress…perhaps the royal beneficiary above all. As yet, there is no adequate, in toto presentation of the Calakmul monuments. Simon Martin (2014) is, of course, refining the history of the site and its region, and that work is likely to be definitive on current data. [Note 2] But we can say this: Stela 51 was of some size, 4.12 m in overall height, 3.10 m in length of carving. Stela 89, doubtless delivered at the same moment (its recorded date is 274 days after Stela 51’s), is half that, at 1.55 m in length of carving. Did this disproportion have something to do with ease of transport or reducing the physical burden of that transport?  In fact, their stone appears to have been “[h]ewn from a dense, durable limestone, presumably imported from some distance” (Martin and Grube 2008: 113). I am sorry to say that epigraphers, myself included, seldom if ever record quantitative measures of stone hardness. Perhaps we should. Anomalies might reveal themselves, as in the case of the re-carved Panel 10 at Dos Pilas. That sculpture, “evidently of nonlocal material,” a “fine-grained and dense limestone,” is wholly different from the softer stone in other carvings at the site (Houston 1993: 72, fig. 3–1). The re-carving hints that Panel 10 was transported from elsewhere, something that might have been done, as at Aguateca, Guatemala, for the sculptures of vanquished, enemy kingdoms (Houston 2014).

Another tributary text comes to mind. Step IV on Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3 has elicited, at least to me, a sense of anomaly since its publication by Ian Graham (1982:170). The style is notably ham-handed in comparison to other carvings on the stairway (Figure 2). Rather than the tidy layout of other treads, which link thematically to the presentation of important captives, these glyphs appear in slovenly manner. Signs slope and sag, their outlines bulge. The look is less of disciplined carving than painterly “facture,” a reflection of originals rapidly executed in pigment. Few rows follow the same alignment, and some glyph blocks vary greatly in size. Even the final column bows to the right before coming back to its intended vertical alignment. There is also a real chance that the limestone itself differed from other treads. According to Graham (1982: 165), its weathering is quite distinct from the other, lower steps of the stairway. This indicates harder stone or, perhaps, later placement. (Such insertions are known at Yaxchilan: Lintel 21, from the Late Classic period, occurs with Early Classic companions in the lintel series of Structure 22.) Were imported stones usually harder, to avoid damage en route?  Step IV also has it own dedication date of, and for an unusual “owner,” a ruler, Shield Jaguar III, in impersonation mode.


Figure 1. Step IV, Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3, drawing by Ian Graham (1982: 170 [Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University]).

The concluding phrases of the text are far smaller than those referring to royalty such as Shield Jaguar (B4), his mother (A5–B5), and his father, Bird Jaguar III (B6, Figure 2). They would seem to follow a sumptuary pattern: the ensuing names belong to at least one person of lesser, sajal status. Thus, reduced social importance = smaller signs. The text is unambiguous, stating that the carving was raised up (t’ab but without the usual yi, probably a problem in Graham’s drawing). It belonged to someone named “guardian of Yellow(?) Bat,” in the company of 12 Pat, a term linked to tribute by David Stuart (Stuart 1998: 384, fig. 6).
Figure 2. Parsing of final phrase in Step IV. “IS” indicates “Initial Sign,” as part of a dedicatory phrase. Original drawing by drawing by Ian Graham (1982: 170 [Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University]).
The descriptive for the carving or kind of sculpture (u-k’a?-li) is known elsewhere (e.g., Xcalumkin Lintel 1:G1, Xcombec “St. 1”:C3), although it tends to be rare at sites to the south of the Puuc hills or the Campeche coast. One, for example, may occur at Naj Tunich (u-k’a ha in Drawing 51 [Stone 1995: pl. 11]). Nonetheless, it is fair to say that, after discussions with David Stuart, the reading remains opaque or at least debatable. Stuart and I are both dubious that this relevant glyph for the monument type is simply a syllabic k’a. That matter can be left for later. What commands our attention is that this slab, so wildly discrepant from its neighboring treads, seemingly of different stone, refers to its possession by a subordinate who uses a title of war. [Note 3] Another figure, employing a possibly title for tributaries, comes second. As at Calakmul, the lords of Yaxchilan may have exhibited stones brought at some effort from subordinate sites, either extracted from subsidiary lords or given by them in respectful service.
[Note 1] The shipment of carvings existed in tandem with the option of sending carvers (Houston 2016: 407, fig. 13.11).
[Note 2]  To be sure, there is Marcus (1987). To my critical eye, this monograph is a model of how not to do such a report. It is brief, unreliable, under-cited, and badly illustrated, with a monographic length that results less from quantity of text than creative formatting of pages.
[Note 3] I am mindful that the yatz’in? might include another pronoun, signaling the presence of yet a third name in this text. But I think this doubtful.
Acknowledgements  Thanks go to Simon Martin, Mary Miller, and David Stuart for comments on the ideas herein.
Graham, Ian. 1982. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 3, Part 1: Yaxchilan. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Houston, Stephen D. 2014. Monuments. In Life and Politics at the Royal Court of Aguateca: Artifacts, Analytical Data, and Synthesis. Aguateca Archaeological Project First Phase Monograph Series, Volume 3, edited by Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, 235-257. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Houston, Stephen D. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 391–431. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
Marcus, Joyce. 1987. The Inscriptions of Calakmul: Royal Marriage at a Maya City in Campeche, Mexico. Technical Report 21. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Martin, Simon. 2014. The Classic Maya Polity: An Epigraphic Approach to a Pre-Hispanic Political System. Ph.D. diss., University College London.
Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. Thames and Hudson, London.
Martin, Simon, Stephen Houston, and Marc Zender. 2015. Sculptors and Subjects: Notes on the Incised Text of Calakmul Stela 51. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Calakmul
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.
Stone, Andrea J. 1995. Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Stuart, David. 1989. 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.
Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 373-425. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.
Zender, Marc, Dmitri Beliaev, and Albert Davletshin. 2016. The Syllabic Sign we and an Apologia for Delayed Decipherment. The PARI Journal 17(2):35–56 ©

“Kill All the Lawyers”

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

…said Dick the Butcher, a miscreant in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73. What Shakespeare meant and whether this was side-splitting to a late Elizabethan audience are matters best left to specialists. (My brother and brother-in-law are lawyers, so I hardly share the sentiment.) What concerns us here is the treatment of scribes, keepers of recondite knowledge and official memories, as well as the clerks, we presume, in adjudications among the Classic Maya. Since the 1980s, Mary Miller has suggested that artists served as tribute or war booty in dynasties of the time (Schele and Miller 1986:219–220; also Miller 2000, Miller and Brittenham 2013: 110, 112). This proposal found favor with Kevin Johnston, who also reported on the possible mutilation of scribal hands. Cruel mistreatment removed, not their skill, but any capacity to apply it in the future (Johnston 2001). [Note 1] Few scholarly studies make their way into a poem for The New Yorker, but this one did, and by a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (Williams 2001). The complex movements and political subordination of sculptors have grown clearer with research into such “loans” and cross-polity transfers of sculptural talent (Houston 2016a: fig. 13.11; see also Zender et al. 2016: 46–47, fig. 10). Some carvings may even have come as tribute from subordinate lords.

That phrase, “kill all the lawyers,” brings us back to the vulnerabilities of Maya kingdoms. Consider the front of Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, now on display in the Museo de Antropología “Carlos Pellicer Cámara,” Villahermosa, Tabasco (Andrews 1943: figs. 13, 27; Pavón Abreu 1945: fig. 3; also Martin 2003: 46–47). Located near the Río San Pedro Mártir, the city of Moral-La Reforma has acquired a bewildering richness of names: Reforma II, Reforma, Moral, Morales, Balancán-Morales, Acalán. By fiat of the Mexican authorities, it is now simply Moral-La Reforma. The city contains at least five stelae and an Emblem that I identified in 1983 but did not have a chance to publish. Stela 1 dates to April 9, AD 756 (Julian, 8 Ajaw 8 Zotz’), although it offers other, probably earlier dates that are impossible to reconstruct in the absence of better images. As with many Maya sites, the corpus of monuments at Moral-La Reforma is both readily accessible and in bad need of decent rendering. Drawings from the 1940s remain a basic source—not a good sign. To be sure, superb vignettes have appeared in an article by Simon Martin (2003).

Stela 1 in particular has one of the most northerly examples of a sculptor’s signature (front, just by the K’awiil scepter of the dancing ruler), as well as a complex embroidery of dates in addition to its Initial Series. I count at least four. The back of the carving displays what looks to be a capture, the victor in unusually active pose (Figure 1). His foot presses against the groin of the captive, whose mouth opens in agony. He may even howl. Certainly his head pulls back and lower lip juts up. Yet this may not be an image from battle. The closer analogy is to gladiatorial combat (Houston 2016b; Taube and Zender 2009). Both figures grasp what appear to be stone saps. One of the weapons, held aloft by the victor, will soon land on the face or glance off the raised elbow of the victim. A strip of kab or earth signs below, passing along all sides of the stela, provides a sense of firmament. On this side of the stela it would also absorb blood. Why these signs were thought necessary, as, for example, at Dos Pilas and Calakmul, is poorly understood. Did they refer to some specific setting or quality of surface? The event must have been explained by the vertical text to the far right. The text at left names the loser, a figure labeled Itzam K’anahk, a royal epithet at Piedras Negras (Martin 2003: 47). A Piedras Negras affiliation is unlikely here, however, in that the following Emblem does not match its usual form. The name does recall “Itzamkanak,” a large community some 50 km northeast of Moral-La Reforma, visited by Cortés on his way south to deal with rebels in Honduras (Scholes and Roys 1968: 110–111, map 3). Yet the connection is distant in time and involves a toponym rather than a personal name.

Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, back (photograph shared by Ian Graham, 1983; negative housed in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

The combat covers only one surface. The main image curves around the sides. This scene is visually dominant, although, in epigraphic terms, the back carries the Initial Series anchoring all dates on the stela. Here is the nub of the argument. The main figure, whose name may be jo?-wo-KAN-K’AWIIL (Martin 2003: 47), dances between two seated figures, both captives. Each has arms bound behind the back and looks up to the person controlling their destiny (Figure 2). The differential in size is telling. It may represent their relative size, and perhaps the youth (or dwarfishness?) of the figure to the left.

Figure 2.jpg

 Figure 2. Bound captives on Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, front (Andrews 1943: fig. 26).

The truly unusual feature is that both seem to have tails. There must have been a frisson when the viewer saw, at first, human figures and then, glancing around the sides, a wholly non-human attribute. The figure to the left is eroded and thus more tentative. Curving up his back and to the sides of the monument is what may be a scorpion tail. His lips resemble, however, the duck-bill of a wind god. The far clearer example marks the individual to the right. By Maya convention, his position signals higher status. The tail is well-preserved, beginning as a Muwaan bird attached to the area of his tailbone and then looping out as a centipede, ending in its open maw.

Karl Taube has pointed out that this tail occurs on mythic monkeys, howlers or Alouatta pigra, with deep ties to the sun and, by extension, to the count of days, k’in (Taube cited in Newman et al. 2015: 89). He is the harbinger of dawn, then as now. For the Classic Maya, he also existed on a gradient of bestial-to-human, often with visual evidence of scribal skill. An especially early and well-preserved version was found in Burial 9 at El Diablo, an elevated acropolis within El Zotz, Guatemala (Figure 3a, upper; Newman et al. 2015: 88–95). Later versions may humanize him slightly, string the tail with eyeballs, and, most relevant, outfit him with scribal equipment, including books and brushes (Figure 3b). The example on the celebrated “Princeton vase” (K0511, Figure 3a, lower right) expresses, in my view, the decapitation of a humanoid version with snub nose, the muwaan head concealed; the same looping tail is strung with eyeballs. I have long suspected the trickster rabbit, writing in a book to the side, “off-image” below, was up to some mischief. Had his tricks led to the killing of the scribe? The principal executioners appears to include a duck-billed avatar of the wind god. He is the figure leaning over, axe in hand, upper body just out-of-view.

Figure 3b.jpg

Figure 3a. Examples of mythic howler-scribes, two with clear muwaan-bird heads (top, Vessel 1, Burial 9, El Diablo, c. AD 375, drawing by Kallista Angeloff, Proyecto Arqueológico El Zotz; bottom images copyright Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates). 

Figure 3.jpg

Figure 3b. Mythic howler scribe, labeled as Chak Ch’ok, “Great Youth” (photographer unknown). 

The captive on Moral-La Reforma would thus seem to be a person whose identity has been fused with a mythic scribe. That role may well have accorded with his abilities prior to capture. As suggested by Miller and Johnson, scribes could be taken in battle and, in some cases, bound, displayed, and perhaps killed. The chu-ka-ja, chuhkaj, “is grabbed,” expression above his tail (Andrews 1943: fig. 13) may refer to his actual date of capture, although the scene of possible gladiatorial activity on back muddies the story. Could these have been the two captives, forced into combat, as part of a narrative that began on the front of the stela? Or was it precisely the reverse, a bloody melee leading to the display? Adequate drawings may eventually provide an answer.

For the Classic Maya, the existence of two identities, condensed into one person, is well-attested (Houston and Stuart 1986: 297–302). This extended to captives, too, as in this example studied by Simon Martin (Miller and Martin 2004: 182). An historical figure, a lord Yax Ahk from Anaayte’, probably on the Usumacinta River, was dressed as a perpetual loser, an old god of fire and darkness (Figure 4a; his probable name, “Fiery Ear Jaguar,” may occur below, from a vessel in a private collection in Australia). In other scenes, he is crushed with stones or burned with torches held by mythic youths. Framing dynastic conflict with known beginnings, middles, and ends must have had its own sense of inevitability and, to winners, reassurance. At Moral-La Reforma, those roles may have involved human repositories of skill and knowledge, in deprivation of enemy kingdoms.

Figure 4.jpg

Figure 4a. Tonina Monument 155, c. AD 700, note smoking ear (photographer unknown). 


Figure 4b. Possible name of mythic figure, K’AHK’-chi-ki-ni BAHLAM-[la]ma YAX-‘Cord’-KAN-na, historical name on vessel, private collection, Australia.

Note 1. Visitors to Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow will hear the (probably) apocryphal story of its architect, Postnik Yakovlev, blinded by Ivan the Terrible so that nothing so beautiful would be built again. As for the argument for scribal mutilation among the Maya, I find it plausible but the elements to prove it, i.e., caches of finger bones or a scene of blood-letting from hands in Room 1 at Bonampak, a bit indecisive. It is hard to know who lost their fingers (the deposits are mute on this score) or why a person was slicing at (complete) digits in the Bonampak murals.

Acknowledgments   My thanks go to Simon Martin, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube for discussions of this monument and related images.


Andrews, E. Wyllys. 1943. The Archaeology of Southwestern Campeche. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 546. Contribution 40. Washington, D.C.

Houston, Stephen D. 2016a. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 391–431. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Houston, Stephen D. 2016b. Gladiatrix. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Gladiatrix

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart. 2006. Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70: 289–312.

Johnston, Kevin. 2001. Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Capture and Polity Consolidation. Antiquity 75: 137–147.

Martin, Simon. 2003. Moral-Reforma y la contienda por el oriente de Tabasco. Arqueología Mexicana 9(61): 44-47.

Miller, Mary. 2000. Guerra y escultura maya: Un argumento en favor del tributo artístico. In La guerra entre los antiguos mayas: Memoria de la Primera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, edited by Silvia Trejo, 176–187. CONACULTA and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin / CONACULTA, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. 2004. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco.

Newman, Sarah, Stephen Houston, Thomas Garrison, and Edwin Román. 2015. Outfitting a King. In Temple of the Night Sun: A Royal Tomb at El Diablo, Guatemala, by Stephen Houston, Sarah Newman, Edwin Román, and Thomas Garrison, 84–179. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Pavón Abreu, Raúl. 1945. Morales, una importante ciudad arqueológica en Tabasco. Cuadernos No. 6. Gobierno del Estado de Campeche, Campeche.

Schele, Linda, and Mary E. Miller. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.

Scholes, France V., and Ralph L. Roys. 1968. The Maya Chontal Indians of Acalan-Tixchel: A Contribution to the History and Ethnography of the Yucatan Peninsula. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. [first published by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1948]

Taube, Karl, and Marc Zender. 2009. American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, 161–220. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

Williams, Charles K. 2001. War. The New Yorker Nov. 5: 80–81.

Zender, Marc, Albert Davletshin, and Dmitri Beliaev. 2016. The Syllabic Sign we and an Apologia for Delayed Decipherment. The PARI Journal 17(2): 35–56.

Recrowned Kingdoms

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

In memory of Erik Boot, explorer of ancient Maya history and culture

By wide evidence, kingly lines come to an end. The Rurikids, descended from Vikings, ruled Russia until 1598. After a period of dynastic tumult, they gave way to the Romanovs, whose own story as rulers ended, rather badly, in 1918. (The earlier tumult led to Tsar Boris Godunov…and, by good luck, to a fine play by Pushkin and an opera by Mussorgsky.) At core, kingship relies on a premise of bloodline and lineal continuity. In most cases, it also rests on claims to tangible places. There were human subjects to be sure. Hard effort by others had to underwrite all that high living. But dominion over land and settlements proved equally relevant, according a certain concrete fixity to lordship and real (or notional) control over resources. “Nobiliary particles” reflect that emphasis. German, ‘von + toponymic’ signaled the origin of a family, ‘zu + toponymic’ its current residence. Today, distant relations of the Thai monarch add na Ayudhya to their surnames, alluding to a precursor state that dissolved in 1767 under the onslaught of armies from Burma (Horn 1995). Implicit here is another verity of kingship, that royal lines fail or get driven out, to be replaced by other rulers and systems of governance, or by nothing at all.

Among the many advances in Maya epigraphy is an understanding that dramatic shifts marked certain kingdoms of the Classic period. Simon Martin (2005) has opened the disquieting possibility that the important city of Calakmul was ruled by one royal family and then shifted to another—that of the so-called “Snake” or Kaan kingdom—in the late 500s, early 600s. A perceptive idea tends to find grounding in data. As if by cue, a panel studied by David Stuart at La Corona, fixes the rooting of that dynasty in Calakmul at 12 Kan 17 Woh (April 9, AD 635 [Julian] in the Martin-Skidmore Correlation). Then, in further support, a panel has come to light at Xunantunich, Belize. It appears to situate some of these shifts in civil wars between two branches of the royal family of the Snake kingdom (Helmke and Awe 2016: 9–11). The losing relative died, perhaps by sacrifice or in battle, on 1 Kaban 5 Yaxk’in (July 4, AD 640 [Julian]).

In 2007 I presented evidence for another such shift, very much with Martin’s proposal in mind. That was at the annual Maya Meetings at Texas, in a talk of 30-minute duration that may need some fuller record of its contents. The proposal concerns the dynastic seat of Altar de Sacrificios, Guatemala, whose somewhat aberrant Emblem (the supreme royal title, other than the kaloomte’) came to notice in 1986 (Houston 1986). The epigraphy of Altar (as I shall call it from now on) is both fascinating and challenging. When studied by Gordon Willey’s project, it contained a relatively large number of inscriptions, with at least 14 carved stelae and two panels flanking a stairway, labeled ye-buyehb (“St.”4:B11). The panels fronted a presumed mortuary structure with several royal interments (Graham 1972: figs. 12, 14). [Note 1] There were also three glyphically inscribed altars and yet other sculpted panels, including a spolium or re-used block in Structure A-1 (Figure 1; Graham 1972: fig. 60).

The spolium is intriguing. It may be one of those rare texts, like the Caracol hieroglyphic stairway studied by Martin, that found its eventual home in the seat of a hostile dynasty. The final glyph is likely to be a partly eroded kaloomte’, with subfixed ma syllable, a title not otherwise known at Altar. The right side is abraded, but it probably held the TE’ sign of the kaloomte’. Above it, perhaps, is a rare ajaw, “lord,” variant in the shape of an animal head (a vulpine or opossum face?; cf. Palenque Temple of the Inscriptions, East Tablet:K11, although in that text it is almost certainly a le syllable). Was the mutilated block brought to Altar from a foreign kingdom, to be placed on its side, with implied disrespect, in a masonry wall?


Figure 1. “Sculptured Panel 9,” reused in the masonry of Str. A-1 (Graham 1972: fig. 60). 

In most cases, preservation at Altar is indifferent or poor, making the rubbings by Merle Greene Robertson, done at John Graham’s behest in 1969, somewhat unrevealing. The Altar texts needed a real “autopsy,” i.e., direct consultation with weathered stone, a tactile distinction between carving and its erosive mimics, and then, with much raking light, a set of carefully considered field drawings. At the close of the Harvard Project at Altar, at least one stela seems to have been buried to ensure its protection (A. Ledyard Smith, personal communication, 1982). My letter from Smith–I had asked for more information–is long lost. What I recall is something like a pirate map: “…walk 15 paces from the palm tree,” information of obviously limited use today in a deforested zone. A joint publication by Willey and Ledyard Smith (the latter full-time at the site, Willey being more of an intermittent visitor) mentions the burial of “smaller stelae in Group B…near Str. B-I. Their exact whereabouts are known to the proper Guatemalan authorities” (Willey and Smith 1969:36). Alas, I do not think so! [Note 2] When I visited Altar in 1988, the carvings had been subjected to seasonal burning for milpa (slash-and-burn agriculture). The situation can hardly have improved today. Google Earth shows most of Altar denuded of trees, in full pasture with evident mounds and wall-lines. The Harvard Project must have thought the site would remain remote. There was, as far as I could tell in 1988, no backfilling. Smith’s pits and slot-trenches were still open after 25 years. [Note 3]

The epigraphy of the city has interested me since the early 1980s, when I embarked on a study of glyphs in the Pasión drainage (Houston 1993). Later, Zachary Nelson (1998), then an undergrad under my supervision, prepared a useful BA thesis on the subject. For Altar, we had relied on a basic reference, John Graham’s 1972 redaction of his 1962 doctoral dissertation at Harvard. That work carried its own set of challenges. For some reason, Graham had decided not to incorporate new historical insights from Maya decipherment, although he flagged them as “notable advances” (Graham 1972: v). The oversight is puzzling. A decade had passed since his original study, with several papers in between on epigraphic breakthroughs. While at Harvard, Graham was also in sustained contact with Tatiana Proskouriakoff, principal decoder of Classic Maya history (Graham 1972: v; for a useful list of publications, see bibliography). His main influence or model appears rather to have been Linton Satterthwaite, a resolute student of Maya calendrics and astronomy who “gave [in Graham’s words] so much time and stimulation in discussions and lengthy, detailed letters” (Graham 1972: v). One can understand the diffidence about anything other than dates. The eroded texts do not lend themselves to any decisive reconstruction of royal names, much less a chronicle of local events.

But I must be clear: Graham’s treatise contains much of value. Among his observations was that, in its sculpture, Altar experienced a datable shift in materials, going at about (December 30, AD 637 AD [Julian]) from sandstone to limestone (Graham 1972: 118). The sandstone probably came from the “nearest known outcrops, about 9 km up the Pasión River; the closest limestone [being] on the river…21 km. upstream” (Smith 1972: 115). [Note 4] Such distances from quarry to dynastic seat are unusual but not unprecedented—Calakmul Stela 9, a slate monument whose stone came from Belize, is a notable example. At Altar, movement was doubtless facilitated by the downstream location of the city and by the torpid, unthreatening nature of the Pasión. The Usumacinta nearby is the river with the reputation for being, in a local description I have heard all-too-often, a “killer of men.” [Note 5]

Another observation is Graham’s isolation of three temporal blocks in the monuments of Altar (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Blocks of dates at Altar de Sacrificios.

There is much to say about Altar epigraphy, perhaps for another occasion. What is pertinent here is the contrast between the Emblems of the city at different times. In 1986, I proposed the existence of an unusual title for rulers of the city, one that included a xib, “male,” head within a round cartouche that is indistinguishable from an element in the name glyph of the Sun God (GIII) variant at Palenque (Houston 1986: 2–3). [Note 6] The Altar Emblem is not entirely readable. It appends na and si(?) syllables, and sometimes only a si (Stela 18:C11; also Adams 1971: fig. 53a, glyph “C”). Probable spellings at El Chorro and Itzan hint at different arrangements, with a subfixed si and ni (El Chorro Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, Misc. Block 9; Itzan Stela 17:D13). Had there been a shift from vowel disharmony to synharmony in these later monuments?  For its part, Stela 18 at Altar indicates that the Emblem must have begun life as a place name and only later spread to use as an Emblem.

But this Emblem was not always employed by the local dynasty. The earliest block of dates at Altar reveals consistent use of an entirely different set of glyphs. Each contains an ajaw or “lord” sign, often with pendant la syllable that occurs with some emblems. But the main element appears to be the Yopaat avatar of Chahk, the rain god—he may be the raging form of the deity, a violent storm passing across the afternoon sky. The small, dotted volutes are also found on later versions of his name (Figure 3).

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 Figure 3. A possible earlier Emblem Glyph of Altar de Sacrificios (Graham 1972: figs. 31, 32, 35).

It may be that, in the 6th century AD, Altar went through the same process as other Classic Maya dynasties. Like Calakmul, which appears to have shifted locations in AD 635, Altar did the same only a few years before, just prior to the second block of dates in its sequence, c., April 14, AD 618 [Julian]. This shift is roughly coeval with the implanting at Dos Pilas of a branch of the Tikal dynasty (Houston 1993: 100–101). The incursion at Dos Pilas is often linked to Bajlaj Kan K’awiil, a ruler about whom we know a great deal, including his birth in AD 625. Yet Tikal’s presence may go deeper still. A vessel of Tepeu 1 date with the Tikal Emblem and the name of a “great youth” (Chak Ch’ok Keleem) was found in a cave at Dos Pilas (Houston 1993: fig. 4–6). The style of that vessel is far closer to AD 600 than to decades later. Of course, as a portable object it could always have come to the area at a later time.

Tikal may have played a similar role at Altar. In 1990 or so, I noticed that the name of the Tikal ruler, now known as “Animal Skull” (probably some variant of a turtle head), probably occurred on Stela 8 at Altar (Figure 3; Graham 1972: fig. 19, position D2-C3, shown correctly in Robertson’s rubbing, jumbled in a photo mosaic [Graham 1972: fig. 21]). As usual, the text is eroded and in desperate need of an accurate drawing. But even the titles of this lord occur in expected position, just before his name: a color prefixed to a “capped ajaw” and a set of undeciphered logographs; cf. Martin and Grube 2008:40 for the same series of glyphs on a plate form the area of Tikal. A parallel text with syllables, on a Tepeu 1 bowl in the San Diego Museum of Man, suggests that some of the signs equated to …su-mu ‘a-ku-yi). “Animal Skull,” the 22nd ruler of Tikal, was in place by the final decades of 6th century AD (Martin and Grube 2008: 40–41), a date that accords with mention of him on Stela 8 (, February 21, AD 628 [Julian]). There is a plausible suggestion that “Animal Skull” was the father of the Altar ruler who erected the stela, but I suspect the names of the parents followed. The mother’s are clear, and there is room for a father (see D5 in particular), hinting that “Animal Skull” had some other relation to the local lord. Was the Tikal ruler some sort of overlord?

Altar Stela 8 left side.png

Figure 4. Possible name of “Animal Skull” on Stela 8, left side, D2–C3, title cluster at C2 (photo by Stephen Houston, 1988).

More to the point, did this connection have anything to do with the shift in Emblem? Another text, Sculptured Panel 4, dates by style to the early years of the Late Classic period. It may provide an explanation. At pC5–pD5 is a clear Calendar Round, probably 12 Ix 17 Muwaan. Such a combination of day and month, albeit with a different number for the day, also occurs with a “star-storm” event on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (west section, step 3, B2). I suspect the date at Altar was, Jan. 3, AD 610 (Julian), just prior to the second block of dates at Altar. (A later placement, in AD 661, would accord less well with the style of the ajaw sign.) Terrible things happened. “He of ‘Altar'” (recall: the xib head within a cartouche is a place name) had been attacked, in a phrase with a superimposed KAB sign that echoes the assaults noted on the Dos Pilas stairway. The rest of the text has legible details, but erosion makes it difficult to discern a fuller account. (Houston’s law: “if there is a crucial detail of text, necessary to larger argument, then it shall be in poor and unreadable condition.”)

sculpted panel 1.jpg

Figure 5. Sculptured Panel 4 (Graham 1972: fig. 59).

Here, then, is a story cobbled together from difficult material. There has been a shift of Emblem and dynasty but not of place name. An earlier royal line was replaced by another with an entirely new way of describing itself, now as a family with a direct purchase on land. But the newcomers must have had some illustrious lineage, for Stela 9, at (January 25, AD 633 [Julian]), refers to at least 36 rulers in line from a distant founder. As always among the Classic Maya, politics is not so much local as regional or a melange of both—Altar may have had its own bruising encounter with Tikal. Altar lies at a crucial node of interaction, close to a major confluence of rivers. Quite simply, it may not have escaped the machinations of larger powers.

The long-term pattern serves as a coda. The overall region of the lower Pasión reveals similar blocks of time, separated in Figure 6 by vertical green lines. Prior to AD 731, the river served as a conduit of amity, after that to apparent conflict (Figure 7A, B). Physical zones do not determine dynastic behavior but give it affordances, in places where kingdoms found new crowns to wear.

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Figure 6. Textual activity in the lower Pasión region (ALS = Altar de Sacrificios; AML = La Amelia; ITN = Itzan; Pato/El Chorro = PCR; RND = El Reinado, whose dynastic record has been studied by David Stuart, in personal communications).

Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 12.55.22 PM.png   (A)

 screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-12-55-59-pm   (B)

Figure 7.  (A) relations prior to AD 731; (B) relations post AD 731, with blue lines indicating hostility, yellow lines amity.  Dotted line signals a boundary zone of hostility along the lower Pasión.

Postscript:  Another essay on new blocks at Xunantunich has appeared only a short time after this piece, offering further insights into the establishment of a snake dynasty at Calakmul (Helmke and Awe 2016). The find and its discussion are useful and important, but I differ somewhat in how these events are to be transcribed glyphically and what they might represent. For a future post…

Note 1. Stela 4 (in fact a panel paired with “Stela 5” on the other flank of a stairway) opens with an unusual Initial Series referring to a royal death, at The final date, some 12 months later, represents, I presume, the amount of time it took to build the structure behind the panels. That building, Structure A-1, must have been mortuary in function. It is rather surprising how many death references occur at Altar, from yet another panel on Structure A-1 (Sculptured Panels 1 and 2) to Altar 2, found in the South Plaza of the city.

Note 2. Government guards in the 1980s were, when I researched the Pasión in 1984 and 1986, under the control of a corrupt official, Gilberto Segura de la Cruz, a comisionado militar for Ríos Montt’s army and the son of Ledyard Smith’s foreman at Altar de Sacrificios and later at Ceibal. Indeed, it was Smith who gave Segura de la Cruz his start. Segura’s father, the preceding foreman, had died suddenly during fieldwork at Ceibal. As a favor to the family, Smith replaced him with Gilberto, who could not have been much more than a teenager. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, just before my arrival, sculptures were being routinely looted from the Parks and protected animals hunted as exotic meat for restaurants in the regional capital of Flores, Guatemala. I have a vivid recollection, in 1984, of Park guards summoned to do seine fishing in the Aguateca arroyo. Nearby, the comisionado‘s family lolled and picnicked. Few fish escaped that comprehensive slaughter. Of course, I was young and oblivious at the time, somewhat clueless as to what was accepted local practice and what was not. Later, members of the comisionado‘s family, including my provisioner of rice, beans, and kerosene lamps, became capos for the Sayaxche drug cartel. At least one of them was eventually gunned down in the muddy streets of the town (Sayaxche cartel).

Note 3. Jessica Munson, a former student of Takeshi Inomata’s, is starting work at Altar. I am confident that much will come from this valuable research, especially of early periods.

Note 4. Purely local building materials of mud, clay, and mussel shell characterize the earliest Preclassic construction. Altar was a city that required some sweat and medium-distance transport to achieve its eventual bulk.

Note 5. I have an appalling memory of passing, in 1995, with my good friend Héctor Escobedo, the mauled fragments of a boat carrying immigrants down the river to Mexico and beyond. All had perished. Shredded, flimsy life vests, their stuffing ripped out, littered the rocky shore below the Chicozapote falls.

Note 6. A semblant form, with headband, has been found on a shattered vessel at Cuychen Cave, Belize (Helmke et al. 2015: 26, fig. 16, fig. 18). In my judgment, that is not the same sign. The head departs too much from the standard xib.


Adams, Richard E. W. 1971. The Ceramics of Altar de Sacrificios. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 63(1). Cambridge, MA.

Graham, John A. 1972. The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions and Monumental Art of Altar de Sacrificios. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 64(2). Cambridge, MA.

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016. Death Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich, Belize. The PARI Journal 16(4):1 –14. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/1604/Xunantunich.pdf

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016. Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth: A Tale of the Snake-head Dynasty as Recounted on Xunantunich Panel 4. The PARI Journal 17(2):1–22. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/1702/Helmke-Awe.pdf

Helmke, Christophe, Jaime J. Awe, Shawn G. Morton, and Gyles Iannone. 2015. The Text and Context of the Cuychen Vase, Macal Valley, Belize. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 8–29. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Horn, Robert. 1995. Thai Bluebloods Must Work for a Living. Los Angeles Times (Dec. 17). http://articles.latimes.com/1995-12-17/news/mn-15031_1_extended-royal-family

Houston, Stephen D. 1986. Problematic Emblem Glyphs: Examples from Altar de Sacrificios, El Chorro, Río Azul, and Xultun. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 3. Center for Maya Research, Washington, DC.

Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Martin, Simon. 2005. Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal 6(2):5-13. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/602/SnakesBats_e.pdf

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. 2nd ed. Thames & Hudson, London.

Nelson, Zachary. 1998. Altar de Sacrificios Revisited: A Modern Translation of Ancient Writings. BA honor’s thesis, Brigham Young University.

Smith, A. Ledyard. 1972. Excavations at Altar de Sacrificios: Architecture, Settlement, Burials, and Caches. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 62(2). Cambridge, MA.

Stuart, David. 2012. Notes on a New Text from La Corona. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconographyhttps://decipherment.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/notes-on-a-new-text-from-la-corona/

Willey, Gordon R., and A. Ledyard Smith. 1969. The Ruins of Altar de Sacrificios, Department of Peten, Guatemala: An Introduction. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 62(1). Cambridge, MA.

Caracol at Cambridge

by Stephen Houston, Brown University, and Alexandre Tokovinine, University of Alabama

Cambridge University is known for many things—punting, the excellence of College meals at high table, clotted cream and scones at The Orchards, only a short ways up along the River Cam. Above all, there is the University’s generous tradition of intellectual hospitality.

But it is not known for Maya archaeology. A. P. Maudslay went there, studying Natural Sciences, as did Eric Thompson some 50 plus years later. And rolling forward another 50 years or so, Norman Hammond took his Ph.D. at Peterhouse. One of us, Houston, could not have been more surprised, then, to see, in a small vitrine in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, a small bowl from the beginnings of the Late Classic period. Doubling his astonishment was something else. A label assigned the ceramic to Caracol, Belize. By odd chance, that was where he first trained in Maya archaeology with Arlen and Diane Chase during the initial seasons of their field project. A third surprise, too: the bowl was clearly from the area of Naranjo, Guatemala, in a style fully consistent with that provenance.

By what route did this bowl go from Caracol to a case in distant Cambridge? The main figure here is A.H.Anderson, M.B.E. (1901–1967), Archaeological Commissioner of (then) British Honduras. Born in Australia to immigrant parents from Scotland, Anderson exemplified the geographical quirks of empire and the movements of its servants. He went to school in Nairobi, on to Glasgow for further education, shifting to Burma, where he became accomplished in the language, and finally moving on, at his father’s request, to join the family business in British Honduras (Pendergast 1968:90–91). That was in 1927. By the time of his death, in 1967, he had served as Private Secretary to the Governor, founder of the colony’s library service, Chief Price Control Officer, Commissioner of two districts (Stann Creek, followed by Cayo, in whose area Caracol lay). During a stint with Pan Am Airways, he even traveled with Charles Lindbergh, who piloted him over parts of British Honduras.

Confident in certain abilities, such as the repair of ancient Land Rovers, Anderson was modest in other ways. He knew his limits as an archaeologist, although he did acquire some tutelage, in 1950, 1951, and 1953, under Linton Satterthwaite at Caracol. Motivated by what we would now call “boosterism,” he practically pleaded with Geoffrey Bushnell, curator of the Cambridge Museum: “I do hope that Cambridge will be able to join us here, we have plenty to offer” (Letter from Anderson to Bushnell, Oct. 15, 1953, Archives, MAA). That was not to happen. Until a few decades ago, and in Houston’s early experience—his first visit was in 1981—Caracol was a deucedly difficult place to reach. And, after hard rains, to exit. Satterthwaite moved on to Tikal, but Anderson was able to secure funds from the Crowther-Beynon endowment at Cambridge (doubtless facilitated by Bushnell) to continue work in a part of the site suspected to contain tombs (others had been found in 1953; Anderson 1959:211).

In 1958, Anderson located and cleared what he termed “Burial 5” (Figure 1; Anderson 1959:214–215). A sizable crypt, it contained parts of an earlier building with cord-holders: at one time, the living, not the dead, used this structure. A masonry bench along one wall supported an extended body, head to the south, teeth inlaid with jade (often a marker of royal rank [Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2014]). Another skeleton lay on its side, just off the bench, its head to the north, now with hematite dental inlays. The finds indicate high status, probably a member of the Caracol dynasty. There were two polychrome bowls (one now at Cambridge, Cat. #63.260), “the sherds of a plain dish along with a pottery figurine, a pottery whistle in the form of a bird, a very small pottery monkey effigy pot, two obsidian blades and several other small artifacts,” along with beads of shell and jade, interspersed with Oliva shells (Anderson 1959:214–215). His description, somewhat confusingly, then refers to “two nests of two pottery bowls each,” one of them the bowl at Cambridge, replete with “allegorical drawings” (Anderson 1959:215).


Figure 1. Excavations in 1958 by A. H. Anderson, Burial 5, Caracol (Anderson 1959:211, 213). 

In an email, Arlen Chase confirmed that Anderson had penetrated what is now termed “Structure D18” of the South Acropolis. In 2003, this was re-excavated by the University of Central Florida project, which documented the tomb profile and plan (Figure 2; Chase and Chase 2003:9–10, figures 63–68). Early constructions seem to have been, to judge from ceramics in fill, of Early Classic date. The tomb was part of a 6th (perhaps early 7th) century refurbishment, a repurposing of the building.  


Figure 2. Re-excavation of tomb by UCF project (Chase and Chase 2003:figures 67–68).

In Anderson’s case, tragedy came a few years after his dig. With peak winds of 160 mph, Hurricane Hattie mauled British Honduras in 1961. Anderson’s office was badly hit, his notes destroyed, artifacts forever scattered or destroyed. Yet, by improbable chance, two objects survived from Burial 5, if buried deeply in mud. In 1963, Anderson gave these bowls to the Cambridge MAA in gratitude for the funds given by Bushnell for the work in Burial 5…and perhaps as an inducement for other assistance and expeditions. These bowls are now in the Museum, catalogued as #1963.260 (the “Naranjo” vessel) and #1963.261 (Figure 2, 3). Another bowl photographed by Anderson appears to have disappeared in Hattie’s fury. 


Figure 3. Two vessels from Burial 5, pre-Hurricane Hattie (Anderson 1959:216). 

The three known vessels (two surviving, one only photographed) leave little doubt that the set was temporally coherent, namely, made (and probably deposited) at more or less the same time. All are securely “Tepeu 1,” probably from the later 500s. The monochrome agrees with that placement (Figure 4).


Figure 4. Monochrome brown, Burial 5, MAA #1963.261, dia. 14 cm, ht. 8 cm.   

The “Naranjo” find measures 14 cm in diameter and 8.7 cm in height. One of us (Tokovinine) reworked images kindly sent by Dr. Wingfield into a rollout and then a drawing (Figure 5). 



Figure 5. Rollout and rendering by Tokovinine from images sent by Dr. Chris Wingfield, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

There can be little doubt the object is linked to Naranjo, Guatemala, and, in particular, to a key ruler of the late Early Classic/transitional Late Classic period. The iconography, of Itzam Old Gods in their feathered shells, water birds, Spondylus creatures, and fish are consistent with the mythic names favored for other such vessels (they display Principal Bird Deities, dancing jaguars, monkeys or maize gods, partying ritual clowns, many with signs for fragrant air in the background). His name, whose precise reading in Maya eludes complete consensus, is simply “Ruler I” in some sources, albeit with certain elements that can be decoded (AJ-?NUUM-sa-ji, Martin and Grube 2008:71–72; Martin et al. 2016:617; n.b.: no sa or ji variants ever occur in this spelling, suggesting some conventional fixity of form or, as a less welcome possibility, alternative or logographic values of those signs). Said to have been the 35th ruler since the founding of kingship at Naranjo, Ruler I was quite the novice. Rather like a Maya Louis XIV, he came to the throne young, at 12 years of age, in AD 546, dying sometime around AD 615. His is among the longest reigns—perhaps the longest—in Classic Maya history.

A large number of chocolate pots were said either to have belonged to him or to bear close resemblances in their layout, form and size, use of color, and paleography (e.g., K681, 774, 1558, 2704, 4562, 4958, 5042, 5362, 5746, 6813, 7716, 8242). Most appear to designate the king as a chak ch’ok keleem (but see K681). For Houston, this is a secure token of the king’s youth when the pots were commissioned.[Footnote 1] They also hint that many of these were created in sets, not as ad hoc productions from workshops over time. The Caracol bowl at Cambridge is close in style to others, including one excavated in a primary tomb, Burial 72, under a 6+ m high, west-facing pyramid in a peripheral part of Tikal (Figure 6, Becker 1999:figure 55). 


Figure 6. Ruler I vessel from Burial 72, Str. 5G-8, Tikal (K2704, photograph © Kerr Associates).

Potsherds found at Naranjo itself are also close to those on the Cambridge bowl (Figure 7), as are those from a variety of related vessels: note especially the variants of the T’AB-yi and ka?-ka-wa signs (Figure 8) [Footnote 2]. 

comparanda_B15Figure 7. Glyph fragments from special deposit (Midden NRB-003) in Str. B-15-sub (Central Acropolis), Naranjo: a) u[tz’i?]-ba (after Fialko 2009:fig. 47a); b) -bi ? (after Fialko 2009:fig. 27); c) 5?-KAB yu- (after Fialko 2009:fig. 47a); d) CHIT?-? CHAK- (after Fialko 2009:fig. 47a).


Figure 8. Stylistic comparison of Cambridge bowl with other vases from the reign of Ruler I of Naranjo (photographs © Kerr Associates). 

If one thing has become clear in recent years, including a fresh find at Xunantunich (Xunantunich Finds, Helmke and Awe 2016), it is that relations between Caracol and Naranjo were highly complicated. Historically, they also make sense in terms of macro-politics, viz., the strategic, enduring, and pervasive antagonisms between the “Snake kingdom” and Tikal that Simon Martin has studied intensively (e.g., Martin 2014).

Ruler I, doubtless the owner or commissioner of the bowl in Cambridge, was closely allied with the Snake kingdom. And so too, after initial bonds with Tikal, broken by heavy-handed intervention from the Snake kingdom, was Caracol (Martin and Grube 2008:89). In effect, this remote overlord had some purchase over much of what is now the border between Belize and Guatemala. (Perhaps the branch of the “Snake” family at Dzibanche, due north of the two sites, was the major force in the region.) At the least, the presence of the bowl at Caracol dates to that time of the Snake kingdom’s influence over these two allies. It was a time in which a pot could move with freedom along ties of relative amity. 

All of this would change markedly after the passing of Ruler I. Within two decades, a fury like Hattie’s would spill over Naranjo. The city would be assaulted by Caracol under the aegis of the Snake lords. It seems probable, from the Xunantunich finds, and those at La Corona (Simon Martin and David Stuart, personal communications, 2016), that this was in part the result of schisms within that powerful dynasty to the north.

By about AD 635, the dust had settled. One branch of the Snake family emerged triumphant. But the pot from happier times already lay in its tomb, awaiting discovery and, by curious quirks of weather and history, a move across the Atlantic to Cambridge, England. 


Footnote 1. A vessel at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (K7716) is the puzzle in this set: it refers to his youthful titles, but also to a more advanced personal age by means of the so-called “katun notations” that frame a royal life in terms of 2o-year, anticipatory segments. Houston has examined this vessel. He is unsure whether the number with the “katun” notation is a 2 or 4, the former more consistent with a youthful epithet, the latter wildly off. In any case, could it be that this vessel, the only one with an historical scene, blends earlier events and later ages of the lord? The scene itself displays the “palanquin” or patron deity (a hummingbird-feline-Old God) of the Naranjo dynasty (Martin 1996:224–230, figures 1, 2). The Los Angeles bowl remains enigmatic in what it shows, but could the palanquin have come at an earlier date to Naranjo from some other site? Warriors congregate to viewer’s left, and the sense is of offering, highlighted by incensing in a brazier placed in front of the ruler. 

Footnote 2. There is still discussion about where these bowls were made. Preliminary neutron activation studies situate their workshop in Holmul, a known subsidiary (at least for a time) of Naranjo (Dorie Reents-Budet, personal communication, 2016; see also Estrada-Belli and Tokovinine 2016:163–165). Yet, to date, there is no evidence that the Holmul potters were literate, although their exposure to inscribed pottery is revealed by many whole vessels and sherds with imitations of writing (Tokovinine has examined those collections closely). Moreover, to our knowledge, sampling of sherds has not been full at Naranjo itself, and their place of origin may well shift back to that site. For us, it would seem likely that so many pots mentioning a ruler of Naranjo would originate in his home city, not a more distant subordinate.  

Acknowledgements: Prof. Cyprian Broodbank was the warmest of hosts in Cambridge, offering Houston a week’s stay as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. This visit, enlivened by a visit to the Grantchester Meadows with Cyprian’s family, also allowed Houston to give the 2nd Raymond and Beverley Sackler Distinguished lecture in Archaeology in honour of Professor of Norman Hammond. Dr. Chris Wingfield, Senior Curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, could not have been more helpful with Houston’s requests for information, which Chris supplied at remarkable speed, and with kind equanimity. Houston must also thank, for their hospitality, Graeme Barker (Cyprian’s immediate predecessor as Disney Professor), Elizabeth DeMarrais, Cameron Petrie, Nicholas Postgate, Kate Spence (host at Emmanuel College, former home of many Puritans), Simon Stoddart, Prof. John Robb hosted a memorable high table, in glorious Medieval murk, at Peterhouse College. Sara Harrop, personal assistant to Cyprian, needs promotion to Vice-Chancellor of the University: all problems smoothed, thoughtful always. Arlen Chase was most collegial in sharing information from his re-excavation of Anderson’s operations at Caracol. Licda. Vilma Fialko graciously allowed Tokovinine to examine and document the sherds from Naranjo. 


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