The Woman in Wood: A Reencounter with Tikal’s Queen from Temple II 1


by James Doyle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In 2014, we investigated a long-lost fragment of a wooden lintel, probably from Tikal, that is now stored in Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The fragment may have derived from one of three lintels in Temple II. Two lintels of that pyramid are missing. But the third, Lintel 2, which spanned its middle doorway, was documented by Teobert Maler, Herbert Spinden, and the Tikal project of the University of Pennsylvania (Coe, Shook, and Satterthwaite 1962:35; Doyle and Houston 2014:143; Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:100, Fig. 71). Lintel 2 survived only in part, in two beams. Yet enough remained to pose a mystery. Was the surviving figure, a woman, the main person in the carving? Or did she stand to the side as a peripheral character?

This was important. The dominant presentation of a royal lady would be unprecedented in the Tikal lintels. It would also lend weight to the argument, made long ago by Clemency Coggins (1975:455, 549-551) and Mary Miller (1985:8), that Temple II housed the remains of a royal consort. That lady would have been the wife of “Ruler A” (Jasaw Chan K’awiil), whose spectacular tomb lay under Temple I, just across from Temple II. For Miller, the Great Plaza at Tikal represented more than a set of buildings. It crystallized social relationships. Consorts “faced” one another, the male to the east, the female to the west. Implicitly, too, a royal son, a king, was there to bury the parents. This would have been “Ruler B” (Yik’in Chan K’awiil), whose final resting spot is still subject to debate. The usual candidate, the gargantuan Temple IV, seems not to have had such a tomb (unpublished excavations by the Centro Universitario de Petén [CUDEP] have penetrated deeply into the building). But there is another option, the extraordinarily rich Burial 196. This lies under Str. 5D-73, some 30 m to the south of Temple II. Notionally at least, his tomb would triangulate with those of his parents’.

There is new evidence. In December 2015, we were able to view the original beam of Temple II Lintel 2, now in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


Figure 1. (a) “Tikal: Fragment of Carved Beams from Lintel of Doorway Leading to Second Chamber of Temple II,” photograph by Teobert Maler (1911: Plate 18-2).

Maler had photographed the two fragments of Temple II Lintel 2 at Tikal itself. The second, less well-preserved piece went missing by the time Spinden arrived to collect the carvings for the AMNH (Figure 1). The beams taken to New York, including another from Tikal Structure 10, were on joint display in the 1920s–a photograph exists to prove it. Only the Temple II beam remained on exhibit, however, when the Structure 10 beams were lent for an exhibit at the Museum of Primitive Art in 1966. In response to a loan request, Gordon Ekholm wrote on January 20, 1966, that the “larger one is in storage and the smaller one has been on exhibit.” In her response, Julie Jones (curator emerita from the Metropolitan Museum, then assistant curator of the MPA) confirmed that “the one in the exhibition hall is from Temple II.” In the records of the Museum of Primitive Art exhibition, “Tikal 1956-1966: Excavations in Maya Guatemala,” the Structure 10 lintel is the sole carving to appear in the checklist and installation photos (Figure 2).


Figure 2. “Tikal 1956-1966: Excavations in Maya Guatemala,” Museum of Primitive Art Exhibition 41, Installation Photo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Primitive Art-Curatorial Files (AR.1999.3.5).

Thanks to the staff at the AMNH – Senior Scientific Assistant Sumru Aricanli and collections manager John Hansen – we were able to view and re-photograph the Temple II beam. This may be the first time in 50 years that the lintel has been examined by specialists. The surviving fragment is exceptionally well-preserved, and the surface retains a high polish that must have been achieved by applying an abrasive. Close inspection reveals that the ends of the beam had been burned in order to remove the slab from the doorway (Figure 3), a horrifying process described by Maler (1911:43). The beam had been sawn in two pieces of equal length, presumably by Spinden’s team. This would have eased transport out of the site, which could only have been done by mules. A portion of the surface from the lower right-hand corner, depicting part of the figure’s garment, had suffered a loss between the time of Maler’s photograph and the lintel’s arrival at the AMNH. The relief of the carving is 3-4 cm in some places. In several areas, the carvers had blocked out the raised portion and polished or finished the area around it first; only then did they hack into the raised portion for finer detail (Figure 3). This practice is also known on stone carvings at Palenque and elsewhere. A final detail is that the burned ends of the beam show the annular striations of the chicozapote (Manilkara zapote) from which the slab was carved. The inner core was at the center of this beam, its outer rings on its edges, suggesting that a medium-sized log—the wood is staggeringly heavy and unwieldy—had been split across its diameter and then trimmed down (see Figure 3; Ralph 1965: Fig. 2). The AMNH preserves many samples of wood shaved from the lintel. In the 1950s these had been prepared, it seems, for Linton Satterthwaite and colleagues to perform early C14 assays at the University Museum in Philadelphia. The samples hold out the promise for further, more refined testing.



Figure 3. (above) Detail of charred superior end of the beam showing tree rings (below). Detail of outline for deep relief carving. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.


The carver was masterful. The beam depicts a female wearing an elaborately woven textile dress, a quetzal-feather headdress, and fine jade regalia. The headdress also contains knotted cloth and vegetal elements, as well as shorter, spotted feathers. The jade collar consists of plaques, beads, and masquettes. A representation of what could have been a jade hu’n element appears halfway down the body (Figure 4). The garment itself is highly complex. There are alternating fields of geometric brocades and elements of the sky band, including so-called “Zip-monsters,” angular muyal glyphs as symbolic clouds, along with a field that contains a Tlaloc-like visage close to the hem. The Tlaloc designs recall the Central Mexican imagery inserted by woodworkers into a portrait of Jasaw Chan K’awiil in the lintel of Temple I across the Great Plaza.


Figure 4. Details of the textile: (left) Hu’n jewel, (right) Tlaloc. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.

The lady’s identity is impossible to confirm without an accompanying text or a tomb. Most likely, she was the person we now call Ix Lachan Unen Mo’ (“Lady 12 Baby Macaws”), the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awiil, the ruler of Tikal from AD 682-734 (Coggins 1975:455, 549-551; Martin and Grube 2008:46; Miller 1985:8). The late 7th– or early 8th-century date for the lintel accords well with the radiocarbon dates from Temple I’s lintels. Researchers found that one of the beams from Lintel 3 was cut and carved between AD 658-696 (Kennett et al. 2013:4; cf. Satterthwaite and Ralph 1960; Ralph 1965).


Figure 5. Ankle of Ix Lachan Unen Mo’. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.

In the original publication by Pennsylvania (Coe, Shook, and Satterthwaite 1961: Fig. 17), the authors reconstructed the lintel with the help of a new photograph. The damage after Maler’s time was clear, as evidenced by surface losses and the bisecting saw cut. In this photo, too, the ankle is clearly visible where it was not in the original plate from Maler’s publication (Figure 5). Yet William Coe, a superlative draftsman, seems to have relied exclusively on Maler’s photo for his rendering. In it, the queen’s ankle is no longer visible.


Fig. 6. Tikal Str. 5D-2-1st (Temple II): Li. 2., modified by James Doyle after drawing by William R. Coe (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982: Fig. 71), Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

As we confirmed on our recent visit, the queen’s left foot does indeed emerge from the hem of the skirt below the Tlaloc image. What’s more, the ankle and instep of the foot are clearly distinguishable in the relief of the carving, the left foot turning outward (Figure 6). This indicates that the queen stood with splayed feet, a pose used by figures at the center of a composition. Cloaked in sky imagery, the lady was thus the main image of the lintel. Most likely, Temple II pertained to her, and, as Coggins and Miller suggested, the pyramid needs to be understood as a gendered feature of Tikal’s ancient landscape.


Special thanks to Dr. Charles Spencer, Curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology, and Sumru Aricanli of the AMNH for facilitating a viewing of the lintel and allowing permission to publish the study photographs here.


Coe, William R., Edwin M. Shook, and Linton Satterthwaite

1961 Tikal Report No. 6, The Carved Wooden Lintels of Tikal. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


Coggins, Clemency C.

1975 Painting and Drawing Styles at Tikal: An Historical and Iconographic Reconstruction. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Fine Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge.


Jones, Christopher, and Linton Satterthwaite

1982 Tikal Report No. 33 Part A, The Monuments and Inscriptions of Tikal: The Carved Monuments. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


Kennett, Douglas, Irka Hajdas, Brendan J. Culleton, Soumaya Belmecheri, Simon Martin, Hector Neff, Jaime Awe, Heather V. Graham, Katherine H. Freeman, Lee Newsom, David L. Lentz, Flavio S. Anselmetti, Mark Robinson, Norbert Marwan, John Southon, David A. Hodell, and Gerald H. Haug

2013 Correlating the Ancient Maya and Modern European Calendars with High-Precision AMS 14C Dating. Scientific Reports 3 (1597).


Maler, Teobert

1911 Explorations in the Department of Peten, Guatemala. Tikal. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. V, No. I, pp. 3–91. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.


Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube

2008 Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2nd ed.). Thames & Hudson, New York.


Miller, Mary E.

1985    Tikal, Guatemala: A Rationale for the Placement of the Funerary Pyramids. Expedition 27(3): 6–15


Ralph, Elizabeth K.

1965 Review of Radiocarbon Dates from Tikal and the Maya Calendar Correlation Problem. American Antiquity 30(4): 421–427.


Satterthwaite, Linton, and Elizabeth K. Ralph

1960 New Radiocarbon Dates and the Maya Correlation Problem. American Antiquity 26(2): 165–184.

Big Writing

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

The biggest text or inscription, discussed in a post by David Stuart (Most Massive Inscription), prompts another question. What is the largest writing, the most sizable character in any known script?

A recent trip to China revealed the most complex sign in that system (58 strokes, for Biángbiáng, a noodle we slurped by full moon, at Ramadan, in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an). In terms of sheer size, however, there are certain texts worth noting in the People’s Republic of China (Figure 1). Cheery red, an auspicious color for that society, they appear on separate billboards looking out from Xiamen in the People’s Republic. The intended recipient is the island of Kinmen or Quemoy in the Republic of China. Size gets the message across, “Peaceful Reunification” and “One Country Two Systems.” Built to last, a text on Quemoy, written in an older form of Chinese script, counters with its own slogan, “Three Principles of the People Unite China.” The declarations seem to be on auto-pilot, in mindless riposte to each other. Perhaps people read or notice them. I doubt it, though.  

Bigger texts, with bigger characters, occur elsewhere. The Hollywood sign, shaved down to 45 ft from its original height of 50 ft, is the most celebrated example (Figure 2). Also from China, recently spied from a rain-soaked Bund in Shanghai, is a garish nighttime display, I♥SH. Judging from floor height, each pixelated letter is about 100 feet high. Western states in the US insist on their own gigantism. To mark a school or university, they disfigure the sides of mountains with capital letters (Figure 3). The good people of Quartzsite, Arizona, intent on setting a record for Guinness, at least did so in non-permanent form. Using their own bodies, they formed a slightly wayward “Q” (for “Quartzsite”). Yet the unbeatable champions are the most ephemeral, the sky-writing that, having made its point, loses out to the wind (Figure 4). Or, in an example of pure megalomania, found for me by Steve Chrisomalis, there is the name of a sheikh in Abu Dhabi, visible from space (Sheikh’s Name from Space). Each letter is approximately 500 m long. The sheikh, a member of the royal family, has since had the letters removed, apparently at the insistence of his kin. He still owns the world’s largest jeep, built at a scale of 4:1 (Hamad). 

Bigness has a reason. It obtrudes, insists on being read. It imposes. To create or maintain such letters or characters involves a level of control or will that is beyond the ordinary. There is also sheer legibility and the intended size of an audience. The letters had better be big to be seen from Quemoy, the Bund, a valley bottom in Utah or by people spread out across Los Angeles. Yet these observations, all clearly valid, do not quite capture the local decisions or conditions behind big signs. Why should a university be allowed to impair the beauty of a mountain, a developer erect “Hollywood[land]” or the owner of a Chinese skyscraper broadcast a banal saying to thousands?  Is the owner the “I” of that display or is the love of Shanghai a sentiment that each viewer is obliged to share?

Being big, then, is to be unavoidable, to underscore clout, and to be seen by many.  The Maya evidence shows why some of this holds true, but why scale could have other motivations. There is little doubt that the large size of the stucco glyphs on the Temple of the Inscriptions, Tikal, has much to do with ensuring legibility from far below (Tikal Temple VI). Dimensions are about 85 cm across (Martin 2015:2). This also applies, probably, to the abysmally published glyphs of Early Classic date on the roof comb of Structure A-2 at Río Azul, Guatemala (Adams 1999:fig. 3-19; Figure 5). Other glyphs of large size must have had alternative motivations. Río Azul is also known for the large directional witz or “hill” glyphs that adorn the walls of now-decayed tombs (their erosion is one of the scandals of Maya archaeology; Figure 6). Then there are the inexplicably large glyphs on the sides of Yaxha Stela 3–their exact dimensions are unavailable to me now, but, if memory serves, they measure well in excess of 40 cm high (Figure 7). The real Maya champions, however, are not those on Tikal Temple VI, but the “giant ajaw” glyphs and “giant ajaw” altars that concentrate at sites like Caracol, Belize (e.g., Altar 6, Figure 8, Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:84, fig. 21b). None of these signs ever exceed human height, evidently an operative limit. For those that stand alone, there may have been an existential property at play.  The glyphs are almost figural, glyphic but atextual. Their size reflects a mindset in which practical reasons for large scale–visibility, assertion, intrusion–gave way to signs made big because they existed as places and people.


My thanks go to Steve Chrisomalis, Simon Martin, and Felipe Rojas for their thoughts on Bigness.


Adams, Richard E. W. 1999. Río Azul: An Ancient Maya City. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Beetz, Carl P., and Linton Satterthwaite, Jr. 1981. The Monuments and Inscriptions of Caracol, Belize. University Museum Monograph 45. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Dedication of Tikal Temple VI: A Revised Chronology. The PARI Journal 15(3):1-10.

The Anxiety of Influence, or, Indiana Jones, the Maya, and Tom Swift’s Retroscope! 2

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Most Mayanists credit their interest in the civilization to a gripping lecture, the National Geographic magazine, perhaps a TV special or accessible book. Mine comes from an almost embarrassing source: Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope, a small volume published in 1959 by “Victor Appleton II” and later re-issued as Tom Swift in the Jungle of the Mayas (Figure 1). The author was likely James Duncan Lawrence, a writer and sometime school teacher under contract to the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate (Serafin and Bendixen 2003:8). J. Graham Kaye, a real person, did the illustrations when not churning out figures for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

Figure 1.  Cover by Graham Kaye.

Figure 1. Cover by Graham Kaye.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate was better known for the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries—and for chapters that always ended in an exclamation point! But in Tom Swift, Jr., they found a true hero for every nerd. Ray Kurzweil, Isaac Asimov, and Steve Wozniak were admitted fans ( From Tom, Jr., too, came Jonny Quest and the indispensable Venture Bros., along with a neat equation: Tom Swift the elder (Tom, Jr,’s father, hero of an earlier series that featured Motor Cycles, Submarine Boats, and Giant Cannons) = Dr. Benton Quest = Dr. Jonas Venture. Awesomely rich, each dad headed his own scientific oligarchy. The Electronic Retroscope offered more. It had Maya temples, a giant, jungles, pyramids, carvings, inscriptions, and the device itself. The retroscope could read and restore ancient texts and pictures of the Maya! It revealed designs and mathematical formulae, alien ones! At 8 ya, I was sold on the Maya and their glyphs. And, securely tenured, I don’t mind confessing that influence now.

Some years ago, with more elevated material, the literary critic Harold Bloom wrote The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973). A treatise about the limits of creativity, it proposed a state of “anxiety” in which younger writers (“ephebes”) sought to escape and “swerve” from their precursors. Mediocrity awaited those who could not escape or counter that “influence.” I should hope that I have escaped the influence of Tom Swift—although I crave a similar apparatus. Yet, to my knowledge, no one has noticed that a major Hollywood production, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), also concerned with aliens, hidden temples, and a hodgepodge of Pre-Columbian civilizations, lifts one of its main sets and premises from Kaye’s cover for His Electronic Retroscope. There, in the “Temple of Akator,” soon to zoom into other dimensions, sit skeletal aliens around the walls of a circular chamber (Figure 2). Bad Maya glyphs adorn their thrones. A quick glance at Kaye’s chamber underscores the limits of Hollywood’s imagination. Note the same seated skeletons in a circular “Maya” chamber. The adjoining text booms with the same claptrap about aliens.

Figure 2. Inside the Temple of Akator.

Figure 2. Inside the Temple of Akator.

Tom Swift, Jr., still has his readers, ready to be influenced, as in Hollywood. But they seem hardly to “swerve” into the originality of that teenage genius and his creators.

References Cited:

“Appleton, Victor, II.” 1959. Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope. Grosset and Dunlap, New York.

Bloom, Harold. 1973. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford University Press, New York.

Serafin, Steven R., and Alfred Bendixen. 2003. The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature. Continuum, New York.

Pehk and “Parliaments”

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Mayan languages often refer to assemblies, convocations, and gatherings.

Colonial Tzotzil speaks of ch’akob k’op, a meeting marked by deliberative speech. In the same language, tzoblej, “gathering,” denotes an accumulation of people (Laughlin 1988, I:174, 195, 257). A language of roughly of similar date, Ch’olti’ offers molo, “gather” [congrejar], and pacte, “gather people” [congregar jente] (Robertson et al. 2010:307, 327).

Such encounters can take subtle shadings. Ch’orti’, a descendant of Ch’olti’, labels one kind of meeting—a person overtaking another—by its own special descriptive. This is tahwi, perhaps in the sense of “find,” or, as embedded within a phrase, intahwi a’ani ni tatar ta bi’ir, “I met (or overtook) my father on the trail” (Wisdom 1950:659; see also Robertson et al. 2010:63). What these words emphasize is the act of people moving in space to interact with others.

Another word, pehk, beckons here. First studied by perceptive colleagues (Beliaev and Davletshin 2002; Beliaev and Safronov 2004, 2009; Hull 2000:17), its detection in Maya writing stems, it seems, from an unpublished observation by Werner Nahm (Schele and Grube 1997:96-97). Pehk is attested in all Ch’olan languages. Examples from Ch’olti’ are largely nominalized, including pehcahel [pehkahel] as well as the more weighty, even judicial chacpehcahel, “final [great] judgment” or “sentence” (Robertson et al. 2010:327). The sense is of serious language, words that communicate power, command, and consequence. In Morán’s “religious section,” our best source on fuller phrases in Ch’olti’, pehkahel is a benediction from saints and angels and, ultimately, the word of God (Robertson et al. 2010:46, 48, 52, 59, 88, 101, 102 103, 105, 106, 107, 109-110, 164, 165, 168, 198). The momentous, confessional implications are clear. A pehkahel promises salvation; as a satanic lie, it endangers the soul.

Pehk goes back to Common Ch’olan *pehk-ä , a transitive verb meaning to “call” or to “talk” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:128). There are many descendants. Modern Chontal employs pekän, “call to conversation” (Smailus 1975:163), Ch’ol the very similar pejkan, “speak with” or “read aloud,” but also the more racy (and presumably related) “fall in love” and “copulate with” (Aulie and Aulie 1998:92). Ch’orti’, too, the gold standard for glyphs, presents a full range of terms, some verbal, others transformed into nouns (Wisdom 1950:562-563; sources marked “PM” are from Pérez Martínez et al. 1996:166).

pehk, “a call, a shout”
pehka, “call or shout to, call one’s name, speak”
pejka, “call, invite, invoke, read” (PM)
pehkar, “call, shout, greeting”
pehkse, “command, summon”
pehksah, “command, summons, a summons”
ah pehksah, “Indian summoner (called ‘third alcalde’) at the pueblo juzgado”
pejna’r , “call, invitation, convocation” (PM, note the elided /k/)

These terms involve (1) vocalizations, often loud ones, (2) an insistent summons to serious talk, and (3) at least two parties. There is a summoner and another who hears and obeys that command. Pehk strongly encourages others to come close for further talk.

Figure 1. The pe syllable in Landa’s abecedario (photograph by George Stuart).

Figure 1. The pe syllable in Landa’s abecedario (photograph by George Stuart).

As Nahm had doubtless noticed, pehk is detectible in Maya writing by means of Bishop de Landa’s abecedario (Figure 1). The relevant sign, a syllable, lurks to the side, accompanied by an inverted “v” to signal insertion. The sign itself is an animal head, at least to judge from its dots for whiskers near the snout and long dropping ear. Above, the letter p advertises its syllabic value.

Landa’s abecedario is quite consistent in the matter of contrast. It places an unglottalized consonant just before a glottalized one. Accordingly, ka appears before k’a and ku before k’u. Landa’s p’e [pp by Colonial Yukateko spelling, a glyph that occurs in Classic texts too) should thus follow pe. Obviously, there was a mistake, and the scribe had to improvise with an awkward insertion. As for the vowel, e, that would be expected from the Spanish pronunciation of the letter.

But why did Landa, or whoever copied the manuscript, drop the syllable and then fuss to insert it? The answer may come from the way in which the Relación was assembled. When transferred from some earlier source—the manuscript cannot be original to Landa himself—the list of syllables was botched, I suspect, by mechanical and inattentive copying. The mistake is telling. Historians have increasingly seen the Relación as a “complex and messy” document compiled over one or two centuries (Restall and Chuchiak 2002:664).

With the abecedario, the challenge has always been, from Knorosov’s time on, to relate a particular sign to its Classic-era precursor. As observed by Nahm et al., the most obvious candidate is the rabbit head, T759 in Eric Thompson’s signary, with its distinctive flint markings in the ear. The sign is neither common nor vanishingly rare. (I do not regard all rabbit heads in the script as having this reading, e.g., the ko-?-ma on K5164 and Dos Pilas Panel 15:F1; the extension of pe to other examples warrants caution; cf. Beliaev 2004:122, fig. 2.) One context, from the name for the kingdom and place of La Mar, Chiapas, appends an ‘e syllable (Figure 2; see also Beliaev 2004:129 fn. 1). This expanded spelling reinforces the likely vowel of the rabbit head—a feature indicated by the abecedario itself—and argues that, as a proposal, pe is correct. For specialists, it also yields a probable reading of pe-‘e TUUN-ni AJAW for the La Mar title (see Tonina Monument 91:pD1) or pe-‘e-TUUN-ni for its physical location (Piedras Negras 4:H1, in a reference to the founding, K’OT?-yi, of that city in the late 6th century AD).

Figure 2 pe'tuun

Figure 2. Glyphs for La Mar and its lord: (a) Piedras Negras Panel 4:H1 (photograph by Teobert Maler); and (b) Tonina Monument 91:pD1 (drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University).

The meaning of pe’ remains elusive, but the word could highlight a feature of the landscape. Chontal pe’, “crest,” is suggestive in this respect (Keller and Luciano 1997:191), and, in fact, Charles Golden informs me that La Mar lies at the base of a sierra—the “crest”?– separating the city from the Santo Domingo Valley to the west (personal communication, 2014). For his part, David Stuart wonders whether some of the rabbit heads deploy a “doubler,” perhaps to write pe-pe (personal communication, 2014; see Piedras Negras, Stela 16, D5). Other examples may elucidate the matter.

Figure 3. Summons of gods (Dresden 8a).

Figure 3. Summons of gods (Dresden 8a).

As noted by colleagues, pehk occurs in the Postclassic Dresden Codex. There, it appears as a passive verb, pehkaj, invoking, calling to, inviting, particular gods (Figure 3). The agent is unspecified, however—was it the person doing the reading and, in a sense, “activating” the document? In the Dresden, a few pehk appear to be nominalized (D14a). Two features need added mention. The first is that almost all the deities extend their hands, a gesture indicating speech, as Karl Taube pointed out to me long ago. On one page, where speech itself may be intended (D14a), their mouths gape open, as though projecting sound. The second feature is that the examples on D14a surely cue pehk but use only pe. There are no ka syllables to complete the spellings. I suspect the final velar consonant was omitted with no loss of meaning. Perhaps it was uttered as a glottal—and, to be sure, it gives pause about the reading of the La Mar sign, which may connote other possibilities than simply pe’. Modern Ch’orti’ shows the operation of consonant assimilation in one secure case: *pejkna’r > pejna’r. Under certain conditions, the k appears, then, to be optional or elided, an attribute to be revisited below.                       

What intrigues us here is the appearance of pehk in the Usamacinta drainage and beyond, all during the Classic period. Beliaev, Davletshin, and Safronov draw useful attention to the spellings on the Denver and Brussels panels (so-named from the repositories of these works), as well as a reference on Bonampak (BPK) Sculptured Stone 5. However, I wish to explore the broader implications of these references and others, beyond the details of local history.

Figure 4. Bonampak Sculptured Stone 5 (close-up from Claudia Brittenham).

Figure 4.

The act of pehk, “call, summon, invite,” occurs in very particular contexts. One of them is BPK Sculptured Stone 5 (Biro 2011:50-51). It presents a well-defined succession of events. Exactly 4 winal (80 days) before a Bonampak ruler’s accession on, June 1, AD 643, a figure labeled ju-chi-? was “called, summoned” or “invited,” pehkaj. The reference occurs at position H8-H9 on the monument and dates to, March 13, AD 643 (Figure 4). (The chi occurs in both “hand” or “agave” variants, perhaps with another conflated sign, an animal head.) Apparently, ju-chi-? needed to be in place prior to enthronement. What kind of person was this? High-resolution photos of Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1 suggests that the same person, or at least someone with the same name, also participated in an accession ceremony (Figure 5; Alexandre Tokovinine convinced me the name was not merely a title). It may be that this individual stored or held royal regalia and then proffered them to the new monarch. The main image on Sculpture Stone 5, which depicts a lord lifting a headband jewel of kingship, must pertain to this action. But the main point for this blog: he was “called” or “invited” from somewhere else, by royal summons.

Figure 5. Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1 (close-up from Claudia Brittenham).

Figure 5. Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1 (This and Figure 4 from Claudia Brittenham).

The Denver and Brussels panels have been plausibly interpreted by Beliaev and Safronov as recording a sea change in local politics (Figure 6, Beliaev and Safronov 2009). A ruler of Bonampak was captured on April 8, AD 693 ( 3 Chicchan 8 Zip), followed one day later by the summons of a long list of minor figures. Most have toponymic identifers only, suggesting they did not merit more personal references. In Beliaev and Safronov’s interpretation, these lordlings, two of them former companions of the vanquished king of Bonampak, were now compelled to switch sides and present themselves at the court of rival kingdom. Simon Martin tells me that Palenque Hieroglyphic Stairway 1 yields a similar expression, albeit with different historical characters. The Palenque Stairway text also uses the highly enigmatic yi-ta-ji phrase, perhaps in the sense of “co-capture” or “co-submission.”

Figure 6. Brussels Panel (drawing by Alexander Safronov).

Figure 6. Brussels Panel (drawing by Alexander Safronov).

Figure 7. Summons or invitation in Mural of the 96 Glyphs, N1, Acropolis, Room 29sub, Ek Balam (drawing by Alfonso Lacadena).

Figure 7. Summons or invitation in Mural of the 96 Glyphs, N1, Acropolis, Room 29sub, Ek Balam (drawing by Alfonso Lacadena).

The Usumacinta is not the only area to refer to pehk. The Mural of the 96 Glyphs at Ek Balam records what may be a nominalized version of the word. It shows the summons of the “head-throne” attendant (ba-tz’a-ma) of a foreign lord, Chak Jutwi Chan Ek’, by the local ruler, U Kit, (Figure 7, Lacadena García-Gallo 2004:fig. 18b)—the eroded beginning of this text may allude to other figures, too. A yet more intriguing case of geopolitics occurs on the recently discovered Panel 1 of La Corona (Figure 8). Already enthroned as a lord or ajaw, a young magnate from La Corona set off for Calakmul. Six days later, his overlord, Yuknoom Ch’e’n of Calakmul, performed a “calling” or “inviting” (u-pe-ji-?). I believe this expression is a nominalization in which, by expected phonological process, the –k of pehk has been assimilated to its suffixes, ji-?.

The historical scene is easy to imagine. Close your eyes: the sweaty-palmed lord of La Corona paces, cooling his heels after an arduous, mandatory journey. He is then brought into the royal presence on Nov 13, AD 673. An honor but probably fraught with danger. Meeting an overlord always is.

Figure 8. Summons by Yuknoom Ch’e’n. La Corona Panel 1:G4-H6 (drawing by David Stuart).

Figure 8. Summons by Yuknoom Ch’e’n. La Corona Panel 1:G4-H6 (drawing by David Stuart).

The sculptor did not need to indicate who the invited lord might be, for the context made that clear. The motivation must have been to prepare for an event 12 days later. At that time, the sons of Yuknoom Ch’e’n—there were 7 of them—undertook an important ritual, possibly involving the hands, k’ab, that involves elements not yet fully deciphered (?-ba-ja tu-k’a[ba]). My impression is that young lords of a kingdom were asked to attend or witness a ceremony involving more exalted youths.

In larger perspective, pehk resonates with practices elsewhere. Consider the concept of “parliaments” in the European past. These were occasions when, at royal summons, people assembled to talk, negotiate, advise, hear, and obey. They were not always about the Younger Pitt, the assertion of non-noble rights or Charles Fox and Whiggism. In this respect, later associations are unfortunate and unhelpful. Rather, as a word, “parliament,” comes from the plain idea of speaking and talking, parler, in a time of consultation and formal assembly. The English parliament, for example, descends from the Anglo-Saxon witenagemot or witan, a conciliar gathering of high nobles (Maddicott 2010; Roach 2014; but see Fletcher 2011/12:423-424, for distancing of the Parliament from earlier institutions in England). These assemblies established consensus at difficult times, threaded through or adjudicated difficult cases, and allowed noble participation within a framework of regal will. Much the same, as Karl Taube reminds me, inflected the selection of Aztec rulers by a council of lords or some of the deliberations attested for Late Postclassic Yucatan. So too, perhaps, for the Classic Maya. In acts of pehk, underlings were called and invited, summoned to the royal presence. That these events coincided with dynastic turbulence—war, succession, perhaps the acknowledgement of successors and overlords—hints at how certain kings ruled, by decree and suasion, through spoken invitations that had to be accepted.


Alexandre Tokovinine and, indirectly, Dmitri Beliaev, were most helpful with sources and access to a public presentation by Dmitri and his colleagues, Albert Davletshin and Alexandre Safronov. Alex and Simon Martin, too, corrected my view of certain dates and passages. Charles Golden helped with the physical positioning of La Mar, and Claudia Brittenham came to the rescue with high-resolution images of panels at Bonampak.

Sources Cited:

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Laughlin, Robert M. 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santa Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 31. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Maddicott, John R. The Origins of the English Parliament, 924-1327. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Pérez Martínez, Vitalino, Federico García, Felipe Martínez, and Jeramias López. 1996. Diccionario Ch’orti’, Jocotán, Chiquimula. Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquin, Antigua Guatemala.

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Deathly Sport

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

On a scorching day in July 2006, my wife and I happened to visit a Roman necropolis at Carmona, just east of Sevilla, Spain – not for nothing is this called the sartén de Europa, with temperatures in excess of 46° celsius! But there, at Roman “Carmo,” the tombs were cool, richly painted in parts. Some dozens of meters away, we saw a triclinium (formal dining room) for funerary banquets and an amphitheater to house games in honor of the dead.

The ancient Mediterranean has a long tradition of such games. Homer, in the Iliad, speaks with appreciative bloodlust of the sporting events for Patroclus, the late, beloved companion of Achilles: “Raising their arms, their powerful fists, they [the participants] went at one another. Their hands exchanged some heavy punches, landing with painful crunches on their jaws. From their limbs sweat ran down everywhere” (Bk 23, lines 847-851, trans. Ian Johnston). Ultimately, the tradition passed to the Lucanians at Paestum, south of Naples —where the scene of a gladiatorial fray embellishes the walls of a tomb—to what may be the first gladiatorial contests, also funerary, held at Rome in 264 BC (Potter 2012:187-190). In all such cases, the games pulsed with recollection of once-vibrant dead. As John Bodel, a friend and Latin epigraphist reminds me, the nuances were further layered to include the most basic struggle of all, between life and death (see Ville 1981).

Was some Maya ballplay of a mortuary nature too? Did the hurly-burly of sacred sport—a celebration of chance but also of preparation and athletic skill—link to royal tombs?

The grimmer features of the Post-Classic (to early Colonial) ballgame bear repeating. The Xibalba of the Popol Vuh, an abode of gods with names like mortal diseases, thudded with ballplay. It was in a ballcourt that the lords of Xibalba buried the defeated brothers One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu (Christenson 2007:125). Hunahpuh and Xbalanque, miraculous sons of One Hunahpu, later played in the “ballcourt of their father,” “sweeping [it] clear” (ibid.:125). When they bested the lords of Xibalba, the twins “left behind” the “heart of their father [One Hunahpu]…at Crushing Ballcourt” (ibid.:191). “Here you will called upon’…‘They shall worship you first. Your name shall not be forgotten’” (ibid.:191).

The Popol Vuh, a much later source, does not always resonate with practices and beliefs of the Classic period. Yet here it might, in what appear to be precise or notional alignments between the central axis of a ballcourt and a known royal tomb.

The more precise examples:

(1) At Dos Pilas, Guatemala, the ballcourt composed of Structures L4-17 and L4-16 (Houston 1993:Site Map 1) defines an axis that passes directly south to a pyramid, Structure L5-1. Excavations in 1991 showed that the pyramid contained the tomb of Dos Pilas’ Ruler 2, in a crypt almost precisely aligned with the axis of the ballcourt (Figure 1; Demarest et al. 1991). The sculptures on the ballcourt, Panels 11 and 12, deploy a version of the Dos Pilas Emblem that dates a generation or so later than the pyramid (Houston 1993:Figures 3-17, 3-18).

Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).

Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).

(2) The small ballcourt near Temple I at Tikal, Guatemala (Structure 5D-74-1st), has a central axis aligning with Burial 116, tomb of Jasaw Kaan K’awiil, ruler of Tikal (Figure 2; Coe 1990:Figures 257b, 284-86). There is an earlier ballcourt—said vaguely to be “within a regional ‘Early Classic’ era (whatever this attribution may communicate to reader)” (Coe 1990:650). It aligns almost exactly with Burial 116. Conceivably, the earlier ballcourt dictated the placement of Burial 116, which is off-center in the pyramid, below ground level and towards the front. Again, the crypt lines up with the axis of Structure 5D-74-1st and 2nd.

Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).

Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).

Then the ballcourts with rougher alignments:

(3) The first ballcourt at Copan, Honduras, dating to ca. AD 470, has a central axis that points to the front stairway of the Margarita tomb, and to the vicinity of Hunal, the probable tomb of the founder (Figure 3; Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5.2). The axes of the crypts have the same orientation as the ballcourt (Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5-7).

Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).

Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).


(4) A suggestive example comes from Ceibal, Guatemala (Figure 4). Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, in Structure A-14, refers to the “fire-entering” of a tomb on Nov. 4, AD 747 (Graham 1996:59, Tablet 5:DD1). Presumably, the tomb lay nearby, perhaps behind the stairway, which seems to have been re-set in Classic times. Across from the stairway, but not precisely aligned with its axis, is the Structure A-19 ballcourt; its orientation leads to the join between Structures A-12 and A-14. Takeshi Inomata, who has been digging at Ceibal over the last years, kindly reports on what his project found. Digging in the southern end of Structure A-12, they discovered that the “construction mass dates to the Late Preclassic. Thin Late and Terminal Classic layers were sitting on the Preclassic building”; Takeshi also noted some evidence of an earlier Late Classic building beneath Structure A-14 (personal communication, July 2014). The question remains whether there is still a tomb to be found. The hieroglyphic text would indicate so (Stuart 1998:398, fn. 13).

Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).

Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).

(Incidentally, we have long assumed that the tomb mentioned on the Hieroglyphic Stairway belonged to a figure from the Early Classic period—someone named K’an Mo’ Bahlam. But I see no compelling reason to believe this, as the only date here is firmly Late Classic. To be sure, there is an Early Classic lord of Ceibal mentioned on Tablet 7, position MM1, of the Hieroglyphic Stairway, but with a different name. Notably, he is said to have played ball, pi-tzi!)

(5) A final example appears at the more distant location of Chichen Itza, Mexico, with a date some centuries later than #1-4. There, the Great Ballcourt lines up, at least approximately, with the enigmatic but suitably named Osario or “High Priest’s Grave,” the sole locus of attested royal burials at Chichen (Figure 5; Ruppert 1935; also Thompson 1938). The Great Ballcourt and the Osario date to about the same time, c. AD 1000-1100 AD (Braswell and Peniche May 2012:238).

Figure 5.  Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).

Figure 5. Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).

An empirical pattern doth not a theory make. Yet, at some sites, the Maya may have configured two buildings in unison. One contained a known or likely tomb or tombs, as at Chichen. (There must have been sustained knowledge of sub-surface remains.) The other was a ballcourt, its corridor pointing to a tomb, often at the same orientation. Several alignments seem more notional than precise, uncertain to satisfy a skeptic. And a few, as in my excavations with Héctor Escobedo at Structure K-5, Piedras Negras, could even be cenotaphic (Houston et al. 2008). A ballcourt, Structure K-6, lines up with a pyramid to a deceased queen but not, alas, to her tomb…or at least not one that we could find! (It could still lie off-axis, as we were only able to dig by means of a 2x2m shaft.) We do know the pyramid came first, and that the ballcourt, with its famous image of boxers, was a slightly later construction. In a personal communication, David Stuart also wonders whether Monument 171 at Tonina might be relevant (Stuart 2013): it shows a deceased lord playing with one still living.

Wendy Ashmore has written about ballcourt locations, emphasizing their southern position as “underworld” places of “transition” (Ashmore 1992:178, 179). I would mute her emphasis on “south” and suggest instead the dead could be to the north, south, and east too. Direction did not matter in these examples. Far more important was a specific mortuary intent and not, in Wendy’s words, a “cosmic template.” The fact that the glyph for tombs so often resembles half of the sign for a ballcourt—distinguished solely by the skull inside, nestled within a dark space (Stuart 1998:Figure 13)—raises the specter of a proposal. As in the Popol Vuh, some ballcourts bustled with the living but directed that activity towards the dead.

Acknowledgements: Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona generously responded to my questions about his excavations at Ceibal; Dave Stuart, too, helped with comments, as did John Bodel. I prepared some of these remarks for a workshop on Piedras Negras at Dumbarton Oaks, as facilitated by Dr. Colin McEwan, Joanne Pillsbury, and Mary Pye.


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