Bamboo–A Neglected Maya Material?

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), Karl Taube (UC-Riverside), Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach (UT-Austin), and Timothy Beach (UT-Austin)

 

Building sites in Hong Kong often show a collision between tradition and modernity: bamboo scaffolds, some thirty stories high, envelop skyscrapers under construction (Figure 1; Waters 1998; also Sky-high scaffoldsBamboo spider-men). The virtues of the material are that it is “primitive without being old-fashioned, time-saving without being insecure, and economical without being impracticable” (Waters 1998:20). Less eloquent explanations are that, unlike scaffolds of metal, bamboo can be stored in the open without risk of theft; the material is also inexpensive, sustainable, flexible, reusable (up to three times, depending on conditions of storage), quickly erected, and cantilevered with relative ease over empty spaces (Waters 1998:26, 30).

 

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Figure 1. Bamboo scaffolding, Causeway Bay neighborhood, Hong Kong (Photograph by Claire Gribbin, Creative Commons License).

 

Bamboo tends to be seen as quintessentially oriental. Its tender shoots, processed to remove toxins (cyanogenic glycosides, also in cassava), find their way into many dishes, and an entire sub-genre of Chinese painting, the “Four Gentlemen” or “Noble Ones,” focuses on its depiction along with peers like the plum blossom, chrysanthemum, and orchid (bamboo embodies the summer, the others, respectively, winter, autumn, spring; see also Cahill 1997:187–192; see also Bickford 1999:147, on literary and visual traditions of bamboo and other plants; Hsü 1996:25, on links to gentlemanly virtue). The experience of a bamboo forest, as Houston has experienced it on the outskirts of Kyoto, figures among the “100 Soundscapes of Japan” under protection by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (Torigoe 1999).

But bamboo occurs more widely than that, and with consequences for understanding the ancient Maya. According to one source, “New World bamboos account for approximately half of the total generic and specific bamboo diversity” (Clark 1990:126; for Guatemala, see McClure 1973:88, 105, 106). An ethnobotany of the Tzotzil in Zinacantán, Chiapas, accords a page to them, and gives the plants a full array of local terms: bix (the generic category, “all bamboos, reeds or sprawling, reed-like plants,” Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150), muk’ta ne kotom, yaxal otot, antzil bix, ton bix, chanib, and k’ox ne kotom (Figure 2; re: muk’ta ne kotom, “large coati tail,” there is a ko-to-ma on La Rejolla Stela 1:I9 [files at the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University], but the context is unclear; note, too, that the term “bamboo,” evidently of Malay origin, did not enter European languages until the 1590s or later, etymology). Some grow to over 20 m long, within “ravines in the understory of tropical deciduous forests in the lower temperate and lowland areas” (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). Others are cut by men but brought home to women for use in looms, or do service as banner poles or the staffs of shamans (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). A vigorous shake of a staff will protect the shaman from watchdogs. Many native species are known in Guatemala (bamboo in Guatemala). Today, in the Peten, the northernmost province, workers on archaeological projects used saplings or bamboo in equal measure, depending on proximity (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017).

 

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Figure 2. Bamboos among the Tzotzil Maya (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:plate 10). 

 

While charged with working on the stuccoes of the Diablo pyramid at El Zotz, Guatemala, one of us (Taube) noted the presence of scaffold images with unusual attributes (Taube and Houston 2015:219–221). Criss-crossed poles had cross-wise stripes (a sign of darkness or even the color red? [see Stone and Zender 2011:124–125]), symmetrical volutes at what appeared to be natural joins in the material, and signs of lashing to keep the frame solid (Figure 3A). It soon became clear that the sign appeared on a variety of so-called “accession scaffolds” ranging in date from the San Bartolo murals of c. 100 BC to stelae at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, of Late Classic date (Figure 3C; Taube and Houston 2015:fig. 5.12). Other such trussed scaffolds exist, as on Stelae 1 and 2 at Cancuen, Guatemala, but there with what appear to be ta/TAJ signs for “pine,” also a lightweight material (Maler 1908:plates 12.2, 13.1; Figure 3B). For the first set of images, Taube conjectured that the vegetal material was none other than bamboo, in which small tufts shoot directly out of the surface (the culm internodes), often at joins (Figure 4).

 

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Figure 3. Bamboo in Maya imagery: (A) Diablo Structure F8-1 Sub IB, with cross-bands indicated (image by CAST); (B) Cancuen Stela 1, east side, with queen, pine struts cued (Maler 1908:plate 13.1); and (C) Piedras Negras Stela 11, base (drawing by David Stuart). 

 

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 Figure 4. Bamboo: (A) trunk with tufts at natural breaks [culm nodes] (Creative Commons); and (B) curling tufts, Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama district, Kyoto, Japan (photograph by Stephen Houston).

 

A singular advantage of Maya text and image, where both stand in close relation, is that, if plausibly interpreted, one helps to explain the other. It is possible that two spellings buttress the reading: one comes from a tomb painting at Río Azul, the other from the name of the Temple of the Foliated Cross (or at least its interior temple) at Palenque (Figure 5; see also the spelling on the altar of Temple XXI:G10). The example at Palenque may be our best point of entry, for it appears to contain bamboo struts, as well as two other elements (a snouted being and K’AN crosses). The one missing element, other than the NAAH for “structure,” are three vertical sprouts of vegetation. That is, an epigraphic control exists in which bamboo and its glyphic referent appear to be isolable. In fuller form, as at Río Azul, another part of the sprouted glyph appears, in this case a sign with vertical lines and horizontal dots. This glyph recalls another, a slightly distinct one, with tufts rather than leaf-like extrusions, that carries a proposed reading of AK or AKAN, “grass” (Stuart 2005:180 fn.59).

 

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Figure 5. Bamboo in imagery, possibly in text: (A) East wall of Río Azul Tomb 6 (photograph by George F. Mobley, courtesy George Stuart); (B) glyphs of the Temple of the Foliated Cross, Alfarda:H1 (drawing by Linda Schele, photographer unknown); (C) roof of interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross, bamboo cross-struts with K’AN crosses, corresponding to elements of name glyph (drawing by David Stuart); and (D) wall panel from interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross (drawing by Linda Schele, Schele and Mathews 1979:#302). 

 

But what to make of the sign that appears to refer to bamboo, the element with three vertical shoots? Pondering this evidence, Houston posited a reading of JAL because of the subfixed la syllable at Río Azul; a second such version, spelling ch’o-ko ?JAL-la yi-?cha-ni AJAW, is far later, from a jamb in Temple XIX at Palenque [Stuart 2005:fig. 20a]). Moreover, the YAX-JAL-la NAAH, “Green-blue Bamboo House” (a notional arbor?), seemed quite similar to the term for “bamboo” in Tzotzil: yaxal otoot (the latter being the word for “dwelling,” see above).

Of further interest were the following entries in Ch’orti’ Maya, the language closest to most of the inscriptions (Wisdom 1950, with the usual substitution in that language of r for l in some contexts):

harar                 ‘reed [generic], carrizo (a tall wild grass), arrow’

harar ak           ‘cane grass, reed grass [generic]; zacate amargo (tall wild carrizo-like                                                grass)’

noxi’ harar       ‘a wild cane’

…and the telling gloss,

mak te’ harar   ‘vara de bambu (lowland dwarfish bamboo)’

Makte’ is simply a term for “fence” (“enclosure-tree/wood”), here specified as to construction material. Note too that, in cognate terms, j substitutes for h in many other Mayan languages, hence har/hal equates in such cases to jal (Kaufman 1983:1158). The usual trajectory of glyphic research is for someone else to have been there first. So too here, in a lexical listing by Erik Boot (2009:26, 82). Boot however, focused on “reed,” when other plants, namely, varieties of bamboo, might have been the actual target here.

The implications for Maya civilization are potentially momentous. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. The Guinness Book of World Records mentions species known to thrust upwards at 91 cm a day (Guinness). The rhizome-dependent pattern of growth in bamboo also makes them, to many a gardener’s dislike, hard to control yet endlessly abundant under certain conditions. Was this, in fact, an overlooked resource in Mayanist research, planted, tended, harvested, and widely employed when other vegetation proved scarce because of deforestation?

In the Orient, bamboo goes into buckets and all manner of receptacles, medicines, building materials, delectable food (again, if processed). A list from a traditional village in China dizzies with possibilities: “They live in bamboo houses, eat bamboo shoots, wear bamboo hats and shoes, cook food in utensils made of bamboo culm internodes, walk over bamboo bridges or cross rivers on bamboo rafts, and farm with bamboo tools” (Yang et al. 2004:161, Table 4). Such broad use, including use in the making of musical instruments, occurs throughout the indigenous Americas (Berlin et al. 1974:131; Judziewicz et al. 1999). Utensils in some Maya imagery might have been made of this perishable material, providing, according to one proposal, the formal source of Maya cylinder vases, later reproduced in fired clay (Bruhns 1994). The segmentation of bamboo also characterizes the depiction of atlatl or spear-throwers at the beginnings of the Late Classic period (Figure 6). Bamboo would have been grown, selected for desired width, and cut to suitable length.

 

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Figure 6. Possible use of bamboo atlatl or spear-throwers (K2036, Photograph by Justin Kerr, © Justin Kerr). 

Other thoughts intrude: were the external holes in walls at Tikal simply for ventilation, or did some serve as footings for bamboo scaffolds? The relentless assault on plaster in the tropics, with the logical need for future repair, might explain these features (Figure 6, upper left; see also Coe 1990:figs. 209, 321; also, Penn Tikal Archive, #C63-004-0021, for close-up views of Temple I and its comparable holes). That is, provision was made for continued refurbishment or washes of lime-plaster. The complete decay of some vault-struts, now seen only as holes, many round, raise the possibility that at least some of them were of bamboo. Moreover, at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, Houston and his team found bushels of bajareque, mud placed on wattle that had baked into near-ceramics by random (or set) fires in buildings. The bajareque often preserves evidence of cylindrical wattle, perhaps also of readily harvested bamboo (unfortunately, few sections are long enough to detect its distinct segmentation); a similar find, wit. Such remains were found with wattle-and-daub at Cerén, El Salvador (Lentz and Ramírez-Soza 2002:34). And if deforestation were at all relevant, as appears to be true in many places, bamboo, with its rapid in growth and varied use, might even have been cultivated.

 

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Figure 7. Upper left, back of Structure 5D-23, 1st-B, rear elevation, holes highlighted in red (Coe 1990:fig. 129), and, lower right, bajareque, Operation PN11A-3-4 (photograph by Stephen Houston).

 

A chart of biosilicates extracted from the main aguada or reservoir in El Zotz, Guatemala, reveals a possible signature of this cultivation: the abundance, in the Late Classic period, of “native grasses,” which may represent the residue of bamboo (Figure 8; Beach et al. 2015:272). Bamboo has been found in late tombs in Río Bec, Mexico (Dussol et al. 2016:67), as well as in Chinikiha, also in Mexico (Trabanino and Núñez 2014: 156), but it seems also that the “great anatomic homogeneity of the monocotyledons [a flowering plant category to which bamboo belongs], as well as the lack of an anatomic reference collection specific to neotropical bamboos,” complicates their precise detection (Dusoll et al. 2016:67, for quotation, 63). Further, as archaeological residue, bamboos are fragile, preserve poorly, and “rapid combustion [of them] generally does not produce charcoal remains” (Dusoll et al. 2016:66). Another specialist underscores the problems of identification: “Poaceae pollen [in the taxonomic family that contains bamboo] is very plain in appearance via light microscopy, and the palynologist must always be careful not to confuse maize pollen with the similar-looking pollen of other grasses, aquatic grasses, or bamboos” (Morse 2009:177, citing Horn 2006:368). For his part, Kazuo Aoyama (personal communication, 2017), the most expert practitioner of microwear analysis in the Maya region, has actually tested bamboo and found it indistinguishable from other woods and pithy material in its effect on lithics (Aoyama 1989:202; Aoyama 1995:131; 1996:Tables 3.13. 3.14). Its “signature” appears to be ambiguous.

Perhaps, as has been suggested for pine, such plants were more commonly used than supposed, to be grown, moved, and traded as valued resources (Lentz et al. 2005). Its working, if discernible as to family or genus, may yet appear as residue on Maya stone tools (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017). Or, like bamboo in many places, the plants grew to copious extent but became less salient in Maya lives as the forests (and other vegetal materials) recovered, populations declined, and need dropped. Of sufficient importance to appear in Classic art, and in dynastic and godly shrines, bamboo had receded in cultural and practical importance: it had become the stuff of shamans’ staffs yet sidelined from widespread use.

 

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Figure 8. Diagram of biosilicates, including possible bamboo pollen from El Zotz, Guatemala (Beach et al. 2015:Fig. 12.5).

 

Acknowledgements  This essay benefitted greatly from discussions with David Stuart, who drew our attention to the Boot citation. Our good colleague, Jeffrey Moser, helped with sources on Chinese painting, Kazuo Aoyama commented on bamboo and microwear, Barbara Arroyo provided a key source, and Andrew Scherer offered comments on plant use in Peten, Guatemala.

 

References

Aoyama, Kazuo. 1989. Estudio experimental de las huellas de uso sobre material lítico de obsidiana y sílex. Mésoamerica 17:185–214.

Aoyama, Kazuo. 1995. Microwear Analysis in the Southeast Maya Lowlands: Two Case Studies at Copan, Honduras. Latin American Antiquity 6(2): 129–144.

Aoyama, Kazuo. 1996. Exchange, Craft specialization, and Ancient Maya State Formation: A Study of Chipped stone Artifacts from the Southeast Maya Lowlands. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh.

Aulie, Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. [ed. Emily F. Scharfe de Stairs] Diccionario Ch’ol de Tumbalá, Chiapas, con variaciones dialectales de Tila y Sabanilla. Mexico City: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Beach, Timothy, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, Jonathan Flood, Stephen Houston, Thomas G. Garrison, Edwin Román, Steve Bozarth, and James Doyle. In Tikal: Paleoecology of an Ancient Maya City, edited by David L. Lentz, Nicholas P. Dunning, and Vernon L. Scarborough, 258–279. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berlin, Brent, Dennis E. Breedlove, and Peter H. Raven. 1974. Principles of Tzeltal Plant Classification: An Introduction to the Botanical Ethnography of a Mayan-Speaking People of Highland Chiapas. Academic Press, New York.

Bickford, Maggie. 1999. Three Rams and Three Friends: The Working Lives of Chinese Auspicious Motifs. Asia Major 12(1):127–158.

Boot, Erik. 2009. The Updated Preliminary Classic Maya‐English, English‐Classic Maya Vocabulary of Hieroglyphic Readings. Mesoweb Resources .pdf

Breedlove, Dennis E., and Robert M. Laughlin. 2000. The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán. Abridged edition. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Bruhns, Karen O. 1994. The Original Maya Cylinder Vase? Mexicon 16(2):71.

Cahill, James. 1997. The Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). In Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, 136–195. New Haven: Yale University Press / Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Clark, Lynn G. 1990. Diversity and Biogeography of Neotropical Bamboos (Poaceae: Bambusoideae). Acta Botanica Brasilica 4(1):125–132.

Coe, William R. 1990. Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrace and North Acropolis of Tikal. Tikal Report No. 14, Volume IV. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Dussol, Lydie, Michelle Elliott, Grégory Pereira, and Dominique Michelet. 2016. The Use of Firewood in Ancient Maya Funerary Rituals: A Case Study from Río Bec (Campeche, Mexico). Latin American Antiquity 27(1):51–73.

Horn, Sally P. 2006. Pre-Columbian Maize Agriculture in Costa Rica: Pollen and Other Evidence from Lake and Swamp Sediments. In Histories of Maize: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Prehistory, Linguistics, Biogeography, Domestication, and Evolution of Maize, edited by John E. Staller, Robert H. Tykot, and Bruce F. Benz, 367–380. Burlington, Mass.: Elsevier.

Hsü, Ginger Cheng-Shi. 1996. Incarnations of the Blossoming Plum. Ars Orientalis 26:23–45.

Hull, Kerry. 2016. A Dictionary of Ch’orti’ Mayan-Spanish-English. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Judziewicz, Emmet, Lynn G. Clark, Ximena Londoño, and Margaret J. Stern. 1999. American Bamboos. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Kaufman, Terrence S. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. On-line resource at http://www.famsi.org/reports/01051/pmed.pdf.

Lentz, David, and Carlos Ramírez-Soza. 2002. Cerén Plant Resources: Abundance and Diversity. In Before the Volcano Erupted: The Ancient Cerén Village in Central America, edited by Payson Sheets, 33–42. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Lentz, David, Jason Yaeger, Cynthia Robin, and Wendy Ashmore. 2005. Pine, Prestige, and Politics of the Late Classic Maya at Xunantunich, Belize. Antiquity 79(305): 573–585.

Maler, Teobert. 1908. Explorations of the Upper Usumatsintla and Adjacent region: Altar de Sacrificios; Seibal; Itsimté-Sácluk; Cankuen. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. IV, No. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University.

McClure, Floyd A. 1973. Genera of Bamboos Native to the New World (Gramineae: Bambusoideae). Ed. Thomas R. Soderstrom. Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 9. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Morse, Mckenzie L. 2009. Pollen from Laguna Verde, Blue Creek, Belize: Implications for Paleoecology, Paleoethnobotany, Agriculture, and Human Settlement. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University.

Schele, Linda, and Peter Mathews. 1979. The Bodega of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2011. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson.

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

Taube, Karl, and Stephen Houston. 2015. Masks and Iconography. In Temple of the Night Sun: A Royal Tomb at El Diablo, Guatemala, by Stephen Houston, Sarah Newman, Edwin Román, and Thomas Garrison, 208–229. San Francisco: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Torigoe, Keiko. 1999. “A Strategy for Environmental Conservation.” In From Awareness to Action: Proceedings from “Stockholm, Hey Listen!,” Conference on Acoustic Ecology, Stockholm June 9–13, 1998, edited by Henrik Karlsson, 103–109. Stockholm: Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

Trabanino, Felipe, and Luis Fernando Núñez. 2014. Guadua como elemento mortuorio en sepulturas mayas. Boletín de Antropología. Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín 29(48):144–163. Guadua

Waters, Dan. 1998. The Craft of the Bamboo Scaffolder. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Hong Kong Branch 37: 19–38. .pdf

Wisdom, Charles. 1950. Materials of the Chorti Language. Middle American Cultural Anthropology Microfilm Series 5, item 28. University of Chicago Library. [Retyped by Brian Stross]

Yang Yuming, Wang Kanglin, Pei Shengji, and Hao Jiming. 2004. Bamboo Diversity and Traditional Uses in Yunnan, China. Mountain Research and Development 24(2): 157–165. traditional uses

The Fourth Wall

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

A fraternity of animals awaits visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There, on a page of the Indian epic, the Rāmāyaṇama, monkeys and bears gather as part of Rama’s army, soon to attack Rāvaṇa, his mortal enemy (Figure 1, Jain-Neubauer 1981:55, fig. 21). Commissioned in the early 1700s by some Rajput prince, the miniature had a devotional use, but it also served to entertain and instruct, as revealed “on special occasions” to “the eyes of connoisseurs” (Jain-Neubauer 1981:9). The lateral flow of events is consistent with these paintings. Yet there, in grinning vignette, a monkey peers out at us. His bear and monkey companions are quite stolid by comparison, for the most part looking stiffly at the enemy fortress to the left. A few stroke and clutch each other in worry or maybe they yearn to claw their way into battle.

 

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Figure 1. Detail of Pahari miniature, Rāvaṇa sends out Śuka to spy on Rāma’s army, c. AD 1725–30, Guler State, India, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 17.2745 (photograph by Basile Baudez). 

 

The grinning monkey has broken the “fourth wall.” He has penetrated the divide between those inside a text, image or performance and those outside. In a sense, the spectator has become a participant. Shakespeare deployed this effect in various plays, as did Thornton Wilder in Our Town and Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas. The director Konstantin Stanislavski, father of “method acting,” and a fixture of avant-garde productions from my college years, used it to rethink modern theater.

Literary theory and cinematic studies might see the fourth wall as a “meta-reference,” an actor’s awareness that he or she exists within a work of art. There are others, those outside, who look on. As the wall crumbles, they are coaxed into the “storyworld” of a text or image (Kukkonen 2013:65), and a particular time, space, and frame reach out to enfold the viewer. The results may vary, but one can imagine responses like empathy, surprise or amusement. There is another subtlety too. In the Indian miniature, viewers may believe this is a flat painting, no monkeys present. Yet, in a word devised by the philosopher Tamar Gendler, they alieve that world of bears and heroic kings to be true and accessible (Gendler 2008). We see the monkey, and he sees us. Most likely, of course, viewers know there is no assembly of animal warriors. They are happy, however, to suspend that notion, the better to immerse themselves in the story. People can feel and believe several things at once.

Most Maya narrative images are of distinct if related storyworlds. In them, the viewer is distanced, a witness at best. [Note 1] There are exceptions, to be sure, ones that transport the spectator across the fourth wall. A monkey might look out from a perch on a mythic mountain, as cheeky as any Rajput beast, or an owl from under the bed of a cuckolded god. Indeed, owls are often shown this way. Perhaps the Maya did so to emphasize their sight or to evoke the en face conventions of the distant city of Teotihuacan [some of the earliest glyphs with frontal owls occur in personal names linked to that far place]; Figure 2A, B). Other figures are human. One is a tortured captive looking out plaintively in an image where everyone else seems to ignore the viewer (Figure 2C). By implication, the people in charge could not care less (to my mind, Maya art hints at a faint sense of disdain for the viewer, almost a devaluing of their status [but see Note 1]). Another presents a high-ranking subordinate who spells out gesturally, with fussy precision, how such minions should pose (Figure 2D). Even his hat is slightly risible, and the image in general expresses an important record of one major kingdom abasing itself before another.

 

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Figure 2. Breaking through the fourth wall: A) Berlin Vase (K6547); B) birds under bed (K1182); C) captive in tributary scene (K680); and D) emissary from Calakmul at Tikal (K5453).  

 

The frontal view of a face or body as a sign of misery is hardly common in Maya art. But it does appear as a consistent theme after the first years of the Late Classic period. And there is so much misery to go around: a gutted captive (with wispy mustache?), takes time from his agony to peer through the fourth wall (Figure 3A); a sacrificial baby lies uncomfortably on its belly, face contorted to the viewer (Figure 3C); a possible captive lolls his head, a bound figure just barely visible to the right (Figure 3D); and a cuckolded god of the hunt languishes–is he ill?–while a deer carries off his probable wife (Figure 3E). Among the few glyphs with such faces is the head of a dead person with eyes closed, mouth in a rictus (Figure 3B, final sign).

 

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Figure 3  Misery and pain in frontal view: A) captive on a sacrificial altar (K8351); B) head of deceased person as syllable na, AJ-pa-sa-hi-na, name of ‘its’aat, Xcalumkin-area, Campeche, Mexico (Kimbell Art Museum, K8017; cf. Xcalumkin Lintel 1:M1–N1); C) baby splayed for sacrifice (K1247); D) exhausted captive (?, K1645);  and (E) cuckolded hunting god (K1559).

 

The convention does not just appear on pottery. Panel 4 from Piedras Negras intensifies the discomfort by showing a captive who not only looks out at the viewer but hangs his head upside down, a frequent position for trophy heads on warrior’s bodies (Figure 4). Mary Miller pointed out to me long ago that Maya artists had a far freer and more innovative hand in playing with depictions of captives. Logically, those bodies were also the way to experiment with displays of emotion (Houston 2001). Was there a hint of pity in these images or was it simply Schadenfreude?

 

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Figure 4. Piedras Negras Panel 4, detail, AD 658 (photograph by Teobert Maler). 

 

Accentuating the frame of a scene–or escaping its limitations–brings up an important feature of Maya imagery. There is a sustained intent to preserve and maintain clarity, to be complete and also, with texts, completely legible or viewable. Yet a change occurs in the visual culture of the Maya during the AD 600s. A fascination seems to grow for the ocular experience itself, with what the eye can see from a particular vantage point, with how materials respond to gravity, a body mass slumps, a cloth folds and wrinkles, how feathers wave to wind or movement. Has sketching begun, practices analogous to the minute, preparatory observations by Dürer or da Vinci of a certain textile or flexed hand? This ocular culture, if it can be described as such, engenders a kind of illusionism, a playful interest in implying the existence of glyphs behind images, bodies that move out of frame but are still held to exist off-frame. The viewer both believes (we presume) that there is no such body but, in Gendler’s term, alieves it be present. A captive’s body or foot goes off frame, in carvings by the great master Mayuy (Figures 5A, B), but the convention also operates in painting (Figure 5C).

 

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Figure 5. Going off-frame: A) Kimbell Lintel, c. AD 783, AP 1971.07 (photograph by Justin Kerr); B) Laxtunich Lintel (photograph by James Doyle); and C) Birth Vase, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (K1247). 

 

In glyphs there is a witty and demanding lack of clarity, a game played with the reader who must fill in the missing parts. This is especially clear in two areas of production: the school of painters around the western side of Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala (involving the so-called “Ik’ site,” identified by titles clearly applicable to a number of different places in that region), and another to the north, in association with the powerful dynasty of Calakmul (Figures 6 and 7). The patterns tend to be that verbs (ak’oot) or titles (kaloomte’) get occluded or, on one vase (K1256), a bit of blood-soaked paper extends from a way spirit to the very glyph for way. The painted texts on clothing in the Bonampak murals show the same illusionistic game. They combine belief and alief, emphasizing what the viewer’s (or painter’s) eye can see (Miller and Brittenham 2013:230, Captions I-5B, I-5C, I-6B). This is not only on paintings, but, as on a panel at Dumbarton Oaks, the carved depiction of a text on the hem of a kilt or garment (Tokovinine 2012:fig. 33).

 

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Figure 6. Glyphic “occlusion” on Ik’-site pots: A) Altar vase (photograph by Otis Imboden, courtesy of George Stuart); B) tributary scene with partial concealment of kaloomte’ title (K1728); C) feather panache over captive’s name (K1439); D) baah tz’am title and historical scene (K5418); E) jaguar ornament over dance verb (K1439); and F) panache over chocolate recipe (K764).

 

The examples on “codex-style” vases are far more sparing, with a very slight degree of occlusion (Figure 7). What intrigues us in both traditions of painting is that, at least notionally, the glyphs lie behind the figures depicted on these vases. There is no foregrounding of explanatory texts or captions. They are exactly the opposite of Mayuy’s framed, out-of-sight bodies. His carvings stress the clear exposition of texts over bodies; these paintings emphasize bodies and image over the text.

 

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Figure 7. Glyphic “occlusion” on codex-style vases (photographs by Justin Kerr). 

 

A final example was drawn to my attention by Bryan Just (Figure 8). Found on the base of the carving of an Itzam or Old god (Martin 2016), it illustrates a novel attitude about attending to what the eye can see, not what needs to be literally and fully present for maximum legibility (see also Houston 2015:fig. 13.5). The text is one of the first known sculptor’s signatures, as well as the first labeling of a carving’s patron. But there is a striking oddity. The carving was not finished where an eye would be unable to see it while the object rested on a surface. This game of illusion, of implying rather than showing, of fascination with situated viewing, seems aesthetic but not only that: it suggests discussion about the nature of sight itself and how it might enlist active and knowledgeable minds. By breaking the fourth wall, it burrows equally into the heart.

 

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Figure 8. Base of carving on Itzam effigy, Princeton University Art Museum, 2013–78 a-b (photograph by Justin Kerr, K3331). 

 

Acknowledgements   My best thanks go to Basile Baudez for drawing my attention to the image from India and its source, and to Bryan Just and David Stuart for discussion of glyphic overlay and illusionism. Justin Kerr offered all his customary generosity with rollout photographs.

 

[Note 1]  Free-standing sculptures, as at Copan and Tonina, are categorically different. As single figures, they rely on viewers to address the carving or to admire an eternally frozen dance, perhaps to speak with this proxy of royal or captive bodies. There is no frame to separate viewers, and a punctured (or non-existent?) fourth wall becomes central to their function. Compelling a kind of interaction, the images cannot be complete without it.

 

References

Gendler, Tamar S. 2008. Alief and Belief. Journal of Philosophy 105(10): 634–663.

Houston, Stephen. 2001. Decorous Bodies and Disordered Passions: Representations of Emotions among the Classic Maya. World Archaeology 33(2):206–219.

Houston, Stephen. 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,  391–427. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Jain-Neaubauer, Jutta. 1981. The Rāmāyaṇama in Pahari Miniature Painting. L. D. Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad.

Kukkonen, Karin. 2013. Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Old Man of the Maya Universe: A Unitary Dimension to Ancient Maya Religion. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 186–227. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin; INAH and CONACULTA, Mexico City.

Tokovinine, Alexandre. 2012. Carved Panel. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 68–73. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

The Lizard King

by Stephen Houston (Brown), David Stuart (UT-Austin), and Marc Zender (Tulane)

The Maya region abounds in reptiles: by one count there are as many as 240 distinct species in Guatemala alone. It would not be surprising, then, if the Classic Maya took note of them and even mentioned some in their writing. The references could even be exalted, extending to royal names or to those of high nobles. At Bonampak and sites nearby, a ruler (or two) went by the name AJ-SAK-te-le-se/TELES, Aj Sak Teles, “He, the White Lizard” (see Tokovinine 2012:65, also Bonampak Stela 1:K1 [Figure 1A]), Stela 2:G4, Lintel 3, A9 (Figure 1B), Bonampak Structure 1, Room 2, East Jamb:A1–B1 [Miller and Brittenham 2013:240], and Dumbarton Oaks Panel 2:D1-C2, L4-K5 [Figure 1C, Mathews 1980:figs. 2, 3, 7]). This term may be linked to its label in Tzotzil, teleš, for Basiliscus vittatus, a crested lizard with the surprising ability to run at a good clip over water (Laughlin 1970:335; note, however, that the compiler of this dictionary sees it as Spanish in origin, from “Andrew,” perhaps a doubtful surmise). Another lord on a late vase from Señor del Peten (or “Nuevo Veracruz”), Quintana Roo, reveals a second lizard name, also equipped with a color designation (Cortés de Brasdefer 1996): AJ-YAX-to-lo-ki?, Aj Yax Tolook, “He, the Green/Blue Lizard” (Figure 1E, see also K3026, CHAK ch’o-ko KELEEM ‘a-*la-tzi to-lo-ko 4-‘e?-*k’e? [Figure 1D]). This appears also to be a kind of basilisk lizard, tojrok in present-day Ch’orti’–for some reason, the puréed brains of this reptile appear to have been used for medicinal purposes (Hull 2016:410).

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Figure 1.  Probable lizard names in Late Classic texts: A) Bonampak Stela 1:K1 (photographer unknown); B) Bonampak Stela 2:G4 (drawing by Peter Mathews; C) Dumbarton Oaks Panel 1:D1-C2 (photograph from Dumbarton Oaks); D) K3026 (courtesy Justin Kerr, copyright Justin Kerr); and E) Señor del Peten vase (Cortés de Brasdefer 1996:fig. 5). 

Another lizard name, probably also for a basilisk–was there no end to their wonder for this creature?–has recently come to light. Excavations by Tomás Barrientos, Marcello Canuto and their team at La Corona, Guatemala, recovered a remarkably preserved, all-glyphic block that the project has labelled “Element 56” (Stuart et al. 2015). Dating to April 9, AD 690, the block provides one of those minute clues, seemingly insignificant but indispensable for decipherment, that enliven and advance Maya epigraphy.  The clue appears in the name of a local ruler who was the younger brother of the preceding ruler. His name contains much of interest: CHAK-AK’, “Great or Red Turkey,” a distinct lizard head, then ku-yu, kuy, probably for a kind of owl (for discussions of these readings in other contexts, see Grube and Nahm 1994:703–704; the AK’ is suggested by an ‘a-k’a spelling at pB4–pA5 on La Corona Panel 3, in a piece held by the Israel Museum, #B95.0149, K5865; other uses of the turkey head for AK’, often without the full wattle [a hen rather than a gobbler?], come to our attention on Caracol Stela 6:C12, ya-?AK’-wa, Dos Pilas Stela 1:B2, AK’-ta-ja, and Palenque, Temple of the Inscriptions, Middle Tablet:M6, ya-AK’-wa).

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Figure 2. Variant forms of royal name at La Corona, Element 56; Element 56: pF2-E3 (top) and pB1-pA2 (bottom). 

Such chains of animal names appear with celebrated personages like Kaan-Bahlam of Palenque. At La Corona, this lord’s name included two birds (the turkey and owl) and what is, to judge from its scutes and scaly skin, a reptile of some sort. La Corona ran the gamut of such references, including rulers named after a cricket, snake, and dog.) The relevant clue to the reptile is the ti syllable inserted underneath. Ordinarily, this would hardly signify, for any number of words might end in a t, with varying vowel complexity depending on the word.

But here we can draw on another “substitution set,” a sequence of signs that helps to establish controls even if the overall meaning remains opaque. This sequence embroiders several texts, most from the Early Classic period, two come from the city of Yaxchilan, Mexico, another from Caracol, Belize (Figure 3). An unhappy truth for Maya epigraphers is that we can sometimes read the sounds being spelled by signs but can not, to any persuasive degree, grope towards their meaning. So is it with this set: ‘i-ti pa-ti yi-pi ya-je-la (the ‘i alternates with a vulture plucking out the eye of a dog, perhaps some onomatopoeic name for such birds). Clearly, at least at Yaxchilan, the set forms part of a lavish string of fuller names and titles employed by certain rulers.

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Figure 3. Title sequence: A) Caracol Stela 23:I1-J1 (drawing by Nikolai Grube); B) Yaxchilan Lintel 22:A1-B3 (drawing by Ian Graham); and C) Yaxchilan Lintel 47A4-D3 (drawing by Ian Graham.

The mystery of what this sequence might mean cannot be solved at this time. What is of immediate concern are the two reptile heads in place of the pa-ti. By standard, and warranted, epigraphic supposition, one alternates with the other, and the ti surely serves as a syllabic complement to a CVC or CVCVC word sign. Paat or pa’t, from the disharmonic ti, yields welcome results: a basic source on Ch’orti’ Maya, the target language for most decipherments, gives us “ah pat, lagartija (small lizard, probably the newt, or e’t)” (Wisdom n.d., though we doubt the “newt” identification), and a yet more complete compilation, by Kerry Hull, supplies “ajpat. anim. largato, largatija. lizard” (Hull 2016:41). These terms are securely cognate with a range of words for “lizard” or basilisk, ix=pa7ch or ix-pa’ch in more conventional phonological notation (Kaufman 2003:641; note that Terrence Kaufman derives the word from Mije-Sokean languages, a link that, if it exists, must have gone far back into the Preclassic period). To this Yukatek adds: (ah) pach “lagarto coronado con cresta y macho” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:616). The internal glottal stop relates anciently to the vowel complexity attested in the Classic spelling. Most of these terms probably connect as well to words for “back, spine,” paat or paach, depending on the language. In syllabic form, the name materializes in the area of Lacanha or Bonampak (Figure 4): a lord from that area went by yi-ch’a-ki pa-ti, Yich’ak Paat/Pa’t, “Claw of the Crested Lizard,” on Piedras Negras Panel 2, and another figure, attested on an unprovenanced altar at the Art Institute of Chicago, was called a-ku[lu] pa-ti, Ahkul Paat/Pa’t, “Turtle-ish Crested Lizard” (AIC #1971.895).

 

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Figure 4.  Other probable examples of “Crested Lizard” names:  left, Piedras Negras Panel 2:I’1–J’1 (drawing by David Stuart); and right, Art Institute of Chicago, Altar:G1 (photograph from the Art Institute of Chicago, courtesy Richard Townsend, drawing by David Stuart). 

This crested lizard, probably some variant of a basilisk, figures in a number of images (Figure 5). The most elaborate shows an enigmatic scene in which two reptiles are being brutalized by black-painted figures, one caparisoned as a water bird–a digging stick seems to serve as a weapon for one tormentor, while the other slings rocks. A miserable-looking crocodile sits nearby on a throne, his arms bound around his back. Evidence of a feast–a tamale bowl and pulque vase (see the white froth)–complete the image, although the reptiles do not appear to relish the moment. Has a party been interrupted, will they be included, after suitable butchering and cooking, as part of the meal?

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Figure 5. Probable paat or pa’t lizards: A) Stoning and torture of captured crocodile and paat/pa’t lizard; and B) paat/pa’t lizard on primordial mountain (K6547, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin).     

The link of basilisks and drinking bowls marks one final image, on a late 6th-century, early 7th-century bowl from Altun Ha, Belize (Figure 6).  The lizard with flowery ornament on its brow long tail and dotted crest occurs in a watery scene that also contains the sign for musk or mead, the latter perhaps being the more likely connotation (cf. Figure 3B, 3C above; for another sign of musk or mead, Pendergast 1990:fig. 152a).  Leaning over slightly, his arm rises in servitude–was this tied in some way to the tableau of torture, either as prelude or epilogue?  Many of these bowls display pizotes or monkeys, the creatures most likely to poach succulent cacao pods, or they highlight birds of a pleasant, watery world (see Taube’s contribution to Ogata et al. 2006).  Whether any of these associations explain the royal name at La Corona remains a subject for future thought.

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Figure 6. Bowl from Burial C-16, Altun Ha (Pendergast 1982:fig. 106d).  

 

 

Acknowledgements  Warm thanks go to the Universidad del Valle and Tulane teams, directed by Tomás Barrientos and Marcello Canuto, for granting access to the La Corona panel.

 

References

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo, Juan Ramón Bastarrachea, and William Brito Sansores. 1980 Diccionario Maya Cordemex. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida, Yucatan.

Cortés de Brasdefer, Fernando. A Maya Vase from “El Señor del Petén.” Mexicon 18(1): 6.

Grube, Nikolai, and Werner Nahm. A Census of Xibalba: A Complete Inventory of Way Characters on Maya Ceramics. In The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, Volume 4, edited by Justin Kerr, 686–715. Kerr Associates, New York.

Hull, Kerry. 2016. A Dictionary of Ch’orti’ Mayan-Spanish-English. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Kaufman, Terrence S. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. On-line resource at http://www.famsi.org/reports/01051/pmed.pdf.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 19. Washington, DC.

Mathews, Peter. 1980. Notes on the Dynastic Sequence of Bonampak, Part 1. In Third Palenque Round Table, 1978, Part 2, edited by Merle G. Robertson, 60–73. Proceedings of the Tercera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, June 11–18, 1978. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Ogata, Nisao, Arturo Gómez-Pompa, and Karl A. Taube. 2006. The Domestication and Distribution of Theobroma cacao L. in the Neotropics. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, 69–89. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Pendergast, David M. 1982. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964–1970, Volume 2. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Pendergast, David M. 1990. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964–1970, Volume 3. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto, Tomás Barrientos, and Maxime Lamoureax St-Hillaire. 2015. Preliminary Notes on Two Recently Discovered Inscriptions from La Corona, Guatemala. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and IconographyLa Corona block

Tokovinine, Alexandre. 2012. Carved Panel. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 58–67. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Wisdom, Charles. 1950. Materials of the Chorti Language. Middle American Cultural Anthropology Microfilm Series 5, item 28. University of Chicago Library. [Retyped by Brian Stross]

Information Storage & the Classic Maya

by Stephen Houston, Charles Golden, and Andrew Scherer

Of late, university libraries have tended to exile books and print journals to off-campus storage. The purge makes room, as at Brown University, for “digital studios,” work spaces, and spots where students might snack on Dining Service muffins. The electronic media are new, but not the challenge of how to store portable reading material. Certain media get bulky. If valuable or spiritually precious, they require yet other forms of storage and access.

Think of the Mediterranean. Clay tablets of Linear B, in Mycenaean Greek, were nestled in baskets with small “carelessly manufactured” labels to indicate contents (Linear B) or they were found close to the resources being inventoried by tablets (Palaima and Wright 1985: 257, 260). Long-term storage does not seem to have been the aim, and, at Pylos, where such archives were studied in detail, storage was relatively limited (Palaima and Wright 1985: 259). The Romans left more overt evidence of storage. For grouping and ease of transport, papyri could be inserted into cylindrical containers known as capsa, of which a clear illustration occurs in the House of Marcus Lucretius at Pompeii (Figure 1).

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Figure 1.  Fresco of instrumentum scriptorium, c. AD 45-79, House of Marcus Lucretius, Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. 

More secure storage involved cabinets with doors, of which a smattering appear in frescoes, the side of a sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, in an early Christian context, a plate in the Codex Amiatinus from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in northern England (Figure 2). Such armoires allowed books to be locked up and their contents arranged in ways logical to users.

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Figure 2.  Upper left, papyrus and tablet storage on shelves, c. AD 200, Buzenol, Belgium (Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels); lower left, detail of sarcophagus showing Greek physician, c. AD 300, Ostia (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nº 48.76.1); right, Ezra the Scribe writing in front of armoire with books, AD 692 (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Cod. Amiati 1, f. 5r; see also Menighini and Rea 2014: 122, 186, 206). 

These examples from the Old World raise questions about information storage elsewhere. Most Maya books, for example,are readily identified in painted imagery on polychrome pots by their jaguar-hide coverings, some more squared-off than others (see the pioneering study by M. Coe [1977]). Thickness is hard to judge, but, after looking at the proportions of bodies nearby, they could be an armful, 10–15 cm. thick at least and probably rather more than that.A constant disappointment for Mayanists is that no books survive in good shape from the Classic period (Carter and Dobereiner 2016). Were they stuffed into bags, lodged in recessed shelving (of which some occur in Maya palaces) or sequestered in temple summits?  There are no archives like those at Pylos or Roman villas with carbonized scrolls and furniture. But there is one possibility: Maya screenfold books, configured like leporello or concertina bindings in Europe, were stored in individual receptacles that highlighted their singular, precious nature. (For opera lovers: “leporello” probably derives from the long list of sexual conquests itemized by a character of that name in Mozart’s Don Giovanni).

One relevant clue is in the form of a stone box recovered from the Hun Nal Ye cave, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98). Two other boxes of ceramic, each with lids, were found nearby, lodged at different levels of flowstone (Woodfill et al. 2012: fig. 6). Carved in two different phases at least, the box accords roughly with the shape of the surviving Maya codices (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98, 107): 38 cm long, 21 cm wide, 10.9 cm tall, with an internal receptacle sufficient to contain a book. By comparison, the four Maya books have the following measurements (M. Coe et al. 2015: 121, organized by relative date, earliest to latest): Grolier, average page width: 12.5 cm, greatest page height: 18.0 cm, probable page height: 23 cm; Madrid, average page width: 12.2 cm, average page height: 22.6 cm; Paris, average page width: 13.0 cm, average page height: 24.8 cm; Dresden, average page width: 9 cm, average page height: 20.5 cm. The Hun Nal Ye “coffer” obliges by showing a reference to a lunar month in both glyphic and iconographic form on its lid–a possible reference to a moon-related codex?–and images of supernaturals holding books on the sides of the box. Regrettably, when opened, the box from Hun Nal Ye yielded only the calcified femur of a tapir, doubtless not its original contents.

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Figure 3. The Hun Nal Ye coffer. Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara. 

Other rectangular boxes, usually of ceramic, are known in the Maya region. Here is a partial list (see also Figure 4; see also Arte Primitivo 3/06/2017 auction, #191; Golden has also seen such a lidded stone box on display in the Museo Chichicastenango; see also Pillsbury et al. 2015: figs. 29, 30). The variance is wide, but so is the relative size of books in Mesoamerica. The Codex Borgia, for example, measures 27 x 27 cm, the Codex Cospi 18 x 18 cm.  There are necessary cautions, to be sure: most such boxes, when recovered in context, contained cache items of sundry sort, not the flecks of a decayed book (W. Coe 1990: 322–324). But the boxes could easily have been repurposed, a receptacle to be later cached in buildings, caves or under stelae.

Table 1:  Ceramic boxes

Princeton Art Museum, body                                    17 cm (wd) x h. 23.5 cm (ht) 

Tikal Cache 119 (excludes legs)                               35 cm (l) x 25.2 cm (wd) x 27 cm (ht)

Caracol S.D. C141C-2                                                  23 cm (l) x 16 cm (wd) x 13 cm (ht)

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2008.59  45.09 cm (l) x 27.31 cm (wd) x 35.56 cm (ht)

Christies box                                                                 23 cm (l) x 13 cm (wd) x 16 (ht)

Guaytan subfloor, tomb 1, Structure 24                  41 cm (l) x c. 23 cm (wd) x c. 18 cm (ht) (from photo, without lid)

Quirigua Stela E                                                          c. 30 cm (l) x  20 cm (wd) x 15 cm (ht)(judged from photo, unlidded)

Quirigua Zoomorph G                                                31.5 cm (l) x 20 cm (wd) x 27 cm (ht)

A sample of images gives some sense of their variety, a few like boxes, others resembling house models (Figure 4).  The first photo even shows one such box during its excavation in the North Acropolis at Tikal.

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Figure 4. Ceramic boxes from Maya region: (A, B) Cache 119, from court fronting Structure 5D-26, North Acropolis (Culbert 1993: fig. 105a); (C) Caracol Structure A1 (drawing courtesy of Arlen Chase, Caracol Project, University of Nevada-Las Vegas); (D) subfloor cache, Guaytan, Guatemala (Smith and Kidder 1943: fig 41c, c’); (E) Hu Nal Ye Box (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98, photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara); (F) Quirigua Stela E cache and Zoomorph G cache (Strömsvik 1941: 81, fig. 32b, c); (G) unprovenanced, Christies Paris, May 2007, Lot 115.

And perhaps some were sealed neatly with ritual paper, as on La Florida Stela 9, although this could also have been a holder for a stingray spine (Figure 5). The point is that these books do not suggest the presence of bulk- or mass-storage. Some were kept in “bespoke” boxes, not so much Taschen-style, deluxe editions as objects of sacred meaning, to be set apart, kept apart, ritually activated, perhaps even sprinkled with incense and other offerings.

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Figure 5. Detail of La Florida Stela 9 (Graham 1970: fig. 9b). 

In the tropics, however, permanent storage is hard to achieve with pounded bark paper and lime-sizing. Bugs, moisture, wear-and-tear, and flaking surfaces will all have their effects–there is, after all, a reason why no books survive entire from the Classic period. The discovery of elaborate notations on the walls of Structure 10K-2 at Xultun, Guatemala, present another interpretive possibility, of cross-media play and targeted preservation (Saturno et al. 2012; Rossi et al. 2015).

That these texts and notations relate to books seems assured. But what was that relation? Were they test jottings and compositional experiments, a unidirectional “flow” from wall to a target codex? Or was the tie to books rather more complex, even bi-directional? Houston has long felt that the Early Classic text on the walls of Uaxactun Structure BXIII had some bearing on the nature of that relation: the horizontal text, replete with archaic day signs, has the savor of a basal historical notation (Smith 1950: fig. 47). Eventful days, with pendant, explanatory texts in place, leaven those of little consequence, their contents left empty. (We are reminded of Louis XVI’s daily note when Parisians stormed the Bastille: rien, “nothing”…although, in fairness to that dullard king, this comment probably referred to how many animals he had bagged that day in hunt.)

But why were such transfers necessary? Another example has come to light in an exploration by Golden and Scherer (together with René Muñoz and Guatemalan colleagues), in Tecolote, Guatemala, an outpost of Yaxchilan on the northern borders of that kingdom (Scherer and Golden 2009; for regional context, see Scherer and Golden 2012). In its central room, Structure D3-1, viewers would tilt their heads slightly and look up at an arresting sight: what appears to be an entire, unfolded codex or, rather, one side of it (Figures 6 and 7), a leporello flattened out on the wall of a darkened room.

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Figure 6. Frontal view, Structure D3-1, Tecolote; figure sits by the doorway to the “codex” room. 

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Figure 7. Tecolote Structure D3-1, highlighting, in red, the unfolded “codex.” 

The quality and execution of the signs were of high order (Figure 7), although the poor preservation only offers an occasional glimpse of legible text.

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Figure 7. Close-up, unfolded “codex,” Tecolote Structure D3-1. 

More revealing are the discernible measurements of the text, with two individual glyph blocks shown here in contrastive green and blue (Figure 8). The red line marks the extension of the text, which seems to contain no images. In this respect, it is closer to the “dynastic texts” studied by Simon Martin: all-glyphic, and with some complicated stemma that involves other notations, some likely to have been on perishable media (Secrets). If a direct transfer–we have no assurance of this, of course–the “codex” measured some 35 cm high and at least 2.30 m long. Such height and length could easily have been accommodated in a few of the boxes above.

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Figure 8. Mosaic tile of “codex” on wall. 

The most interesting question here is not, did the Maya copy from one medium to another, but, rather, why did they do so at all? One explanation is that these were practice pieces or compositional experiments intended for transfer to books. Nonetheless, some notations at Xultun were incised, and draft copies would probably work best on an expedient material like leaves. Meticulous painting on a plaster wall is not the obvious choice for a trial run. The goal here seems instead to have been a consultable permanence: distant parallels include the manumission texts, 1300 in total, that inscribe stones in the Delphi Sanctuary in Greece (Delphi), or small temple texts in Angkor, of a size to suggest painted precursors in dried leaves or other, small-scale formats (Khmer). That some of the Maya examples come from the final century of dynastic civilization underscores its intellectual vitality but also, perhaps, a hint of anxiety that such learning would not last.

References

Carter, Nicholas, and Jeffrey Dobereiner. 2016. Multispectral Imaging of an Early Classic Maya Codex Fragment from Uaxactun. Antiquity 90 (351): 711–725.

Chase, Diane Z., and Arlen F. Chase. 2008. ¿Qué no nos cuentan los jeroglíficos?: arqueología e historia en Caracol, Belice. Mayab 20: 93–108.

Coe, Michael. 1977. Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and Artists. In Social Process in Maya Prehisotry: Studies in Honour of Sir Eric Thompson, edited by Norman Hammond, 327–347. Academic Press, London.

Coe, Michael, Stephen Houston, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube. 2015. The Fourth Maya Codex. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 116–67. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Coe, William R. 1990. Tikal Report No. 14, Volume II: Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrance, and North Acropolis of Tikal. University Monograph 61. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Culbert, T. Patrick. 1993. Tikal Report No. 25, Part A: The Ceramics of Tikal: Vessels from the Burials, Caches, and Problematical Deposits. University Museum Monograph 81. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Graham, Ian. 1970. The Ruins of La Florida, Peten, Guatemala. In Monographs and Papers in Maya Archaeology, edited by William R. Bullard, Jr;. 425–455. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 61. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Meneghini, Roberto, and Rossella Rea, eds. 2014. La Biblitoteca Infinita i Luoghi del Sapare nel Mondo Antico. Electa, Milan.

Palaima, Thomas G., and James C. Wright. 1985. Ins and Outs of the Archives Rooms at Pylos: Form and Function in a Mycenaean Palace. American Journal of Archaeology 89: 251–262. (Palaima and Wright)

Pillsbury, Joanne, Patricia Joan Sarro, James Doyle, and Juliet Wiersema. 2015. Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Rossi, Franco D., William A. Saturno, and Heather Hurst. 2016. Maya Codex Book Production and the Politics of Expertise: Archaeology of a Classic Period Household at Xultun, Guatemala. American Anthropologist 117: 116–132.

Saturno, William A., David Stuart, Anthony F. Aveni, and Franco Rossi. 2012. Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala. Science 336(6082): 714-717.

Scherer, Andrew K., and Charles Golden. Tecolote, Guatemala: Archaeological Evidence for a Fortified Late Classic Maya Political Border. Journal of Field Archaeology 34(3): 285-305.

Scherer, Andrew K., and Charles Golden. 2012. Revisiting Maler’s Usumacinta: Recent Archaeological Investigations in Chiapas, Mexico. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Smith, A. Ledyard. 1950. Uaxactun, Guatemala: Excavations of 1931-1937. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 588. Washington, DC.

Smith, A. Ledyard, and Alfred V. Kidder. 1943. Explorations in the Motagua Valley, Guatemala. Contributions to American Anthropology and History 41. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 546. Washington, DC.

Woodfill, Brent, Stanley Guenter, and Mirza Monterroso. 2012. Changing Patterns of Ritual Activity in an Unlooted Cave in Central Guatemala. Latin American Antiquity 23(1): 93–119.

Getting Stoned (in the Grolier Codex)

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

The celebrated Relación of Bishop Diego de Landa (1524–79) offers, in the edition by Alfred Tozzer—a volume in part ghosted, according to rumor, by many Harvard graduate students—a full array of horrors for those who transgressed law and custom in early Colonial Yucatan. Unchaste girls were whipped and rubbed with pepper on “another part of their body” (the eyes, privates or anus?); “offenses committed with malice…[could only be] satisfied with blood or blows,” and those who corrupted young women might expect capital punishment (Tozzer 1941: 98, 127, 231; but see Restall and Chuchiak 2002, who view the Relación as a varied and complex compilation).

Then there was stoning. If discovered, a male adulterer would be lashed to a post. The unforgiving husband then threw “a large stone down from a high place upon his head” (Tozzer 1941: 124, 215, the latter from Tozzer’s excerpt of Herrera’s Historia General). Other stones played a role in an unusually brutal form of sport attested as far afield as the Cotzumalhuapan sites and various Classic Maya sources (Chinchilla 2009: 154–56; Taube and Zender 2009:197–204). Boxers, “gladiators” even, pummeled each other with stone spheres. Sometimes there was no contest to speak of, and the violence seemed to be inflicted on helpless captives or sacrifices (Figure 1; see also Houston and Scherer 2010: 170, fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Stoning of captive, to viewer’s left (K7516, photograph by Justin Kerr, copyright Kerr Associates). 

An enigmatic image, related to some unknown tale among the Classic Maya, also involves stoning (Figure 2). A figure daubed with black paint lifts a small white stone that carries the dots and circle of a “stone,” tuun. He is about to wallop a cringing lizard with distinct, backward thrust crest (David Stuart, Marc Zender, and I have read glyphs for this creature as paat, an interpretation we will present at some point). Another figure to the right is poised to jab with what may be a digging stick or coa. Misery will doubtless ensue for the lizard, a fate also awaiting a bound crocodile on a jaguar-skin throne. Maya imagery tends to skirt displays of emotion, but these creatures look downcast, frightened, hopeless.

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Figure 2. Torture of mythic reptiles (photograph from Justin Kerr [K9149], copyright holder unknown). 

In our recent study of the Grolier Codex, Michael Coe, Mary Miller, Karl Taube, and I presented what seems to us (and to many others) overwhelming evidence for the authenticity of the manuscript (Coe et al. 2015). While working on that project, I was beset with a growing sense of bafflement. Why did anyone question the Codex to begin with? On dissection, the objections seemed ill-founded and argued.

Here is another piece of evidence (Figure 3). Page 9 of the Grolier shows a mountain deity grasping a stone, a point made also by John Carlson (2014: 5). Perceptive as ever, Karl Taube, who authored this part of our essay, noted that such weapons were used as punishment (Coe et al. 2015: 154). But beyond castigation, there is surely a martial aspect to the pages of the Grolier, of spearing, slicing, and thrusting with atlatl darts. Death by hand-held stone is a particularly messy way to go. The white stones must have contrasted vividly with the blood and gore that streaked them.

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Figure 3.  Grolier Codex, page 9 (drawing by Nicholas Carter, Coe et al. 2015: fig. 41). 

What we did not emphasize enough, perhaps, was that other scenes of such execution or torture were simply not known or understood in the Classic corpus when the Grolier was found in the early to mid-1960s. Almost all the images documented by Justin Kerr and presented here were not recognized as such until a few years ago. That applies equally to most of the imagery interpreted by Chinchilla Mazariegos, Taube, and Zender as boxing or sacrifice with hand-held stones.

I am confident that such evidence will only accumulate as our understanding deepens and the Grolier continues to release its secrets.

References

Carlson, John B. 2014. The Grolier Codex: An Authentic 13th-Century Maya Divinatory Venus Almanac: New Revelations on the Oldest Surviving Book on Paper in the Ancient Americas. The Smoking Mirror 22(4): 2–7.

Coe, Michael, Stephen Houston, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube. 2015. The Fourth Maya Codex. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 116–67. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2009. Games, Courts, and Players at Cotzumalhuapa, Guatemala. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, 139–160. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

Houston, Stephen, and Andrew Scherer. 2010. La ofrenda máxima: el sacrificio humano en la parte central del área maya. In Nuevas Perspectivas Sobre el Sacrificio Humano entre los Mexicas, edited by Leonardo López Luján and Guilhem Olivier, 169–193. UNAM/INAH, Mexico City.

Restall, Matthew, and John F. Chuchiak. 2002. A Reevaluation of the Authenticity of Fray Diego de Landa’s Relacion de las cosas de YucatanEthnohistory 49(3): 651–669.

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.

Tozzer, Alfred M. 1941. Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology 18. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.