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:

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. Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, Mexico City.

Beliaev, Dmitri D. 2004. Wayaab’ Title in Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions: On the Problem of Religious Specialization in Classic Maya Society. In Maya Religious Practices: Processes of Change and Adaptation, Graña Behrens, Daniel, Nikolai Grube, Christian Prager, Frauke Sachse, Stefanie Teufel and Elisabeth Wagner, eds., pp. 121-130. Acta Mesoamericana, 14. Verlag Anton Saurwein, Markt Schwaben.

Beliaev, Dmitri D., and Albert Davletshin. 2002. Syllabic Sign for [pe] in the Classic Period. Unpublished manuscript.

Beliaev, Dmitri D., and Alexander Safronov 2004. Ak’e I Shukal’nakh: Istoriia I Politicheskaia Geografiia Gosudarstv Maiia Verkhnei Usumasinty [Ak’e and Shukalnah: History and Political Geography Maya states of the Upper Usumacinta]. In Drevnii Vostok I Antichnyi Mir. Trudy Kafedry Istorii Drevnego Mira Istoricheskogo Fakulteta Mgu, pp. 119-142. vol. 6, Moskva.

Beliaev Dmitri D., and Alexander Safronov. 2009. Saktzi, Ake, and, Xukalnaah: Reinterpreting the Political Geography of the Upper Usumasinta Region. Paper presented at the 14th European Maya Conference (November 13–14, 2009),

Bíró, Péter. 2011. Las piedras labradas 2, 4 y 5 de Bonampak y los reyes de Xukulnah en el siglo VII. Estudios de Cultura Maya XXIX:31-61.

Fletcher, Christopher. 2011/12. Review of John R. Maddicott, The Origins of the English Parliament, 924-1327. Revue historique 658: 423-424.

Hull, Kerry. 2000. Cosmological and Ritual Language in Ch’orti’. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and William M. Norman. 1984 An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, eds., Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Publication No. 9. Albany: Institution for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany.

Keller, Kathryn C., and Plácido Luciano Gerónimo. 1997. Diccionario Chontal de Tabasco. Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, Mexico City.

Kettunen, Hari, and Christophe Helmke. 2011. Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs: XVI European Maya Conference. 12th ed.

Lacadena García-Gallo, Alfonso. 2004. The Glyphic Corpus from Ek’ Balam, Yucatán, México. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

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.

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

Roach, Levi. 2014. Kingship and Consent in Anglo-Saxon England, 871–978: Assemblies and the State in the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Robertson, John S., Danny Law, and Robbie Haertel. 2010. Colonial Ch’olti’: The Seventeenth-Century Morán Manuscript. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Schele, Linda, and Nikolai Grube. 1997. Workbook for the Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop: The Dresden Codex. March 8 -9, 1997. The University of Texas at Austin

Smailus, Ortwin. 1975. El Maya-Chontal de Acalan: Análisis lingüístico de un documento de los años 1610-1612. Centro de Estudios Mayas, UNAM, Mexico City.

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]

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 west 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.


References Cited:

Ashmore, Wendy. 1992. Deciphering Maya Architectural Plans. In New Theories on the Ancient Maya, edited by Elin Danien and Robert J. Sharer, pp. 173-184. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Braswell, Geoffrey E., and Nancy Peniche May. 2012. In the Shadow of the Pyramid: Excavations of the Great Platform of Chichen Itza. In The Ancient Maya of Mexico: Reinterpreting the Past of the Northern Maya Lowlands, edited by Geoffrey E. Braswell, pp. 229-263. Equinox, London.

Christenson, Allen J. 2007. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Coe, William R. 1990. Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrace and North Acopolis of Tikal. Tikal Report 14. 6 vols. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Demarest, Arthur, Héctor Escobedo, Juan-Antonio Valdés, Lori Wright, Kitty Emery, and Stephen Houston. 1991 Arqueología, epigrafía y el descubrimiento de una tumba real en el centro ceremonial de Dos Pilas, Peten, Guatemala. U tz’ib 1(1):14-28.

Graham, Ian. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 7, Part 1: Seibal. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

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

Houston, Stephen, Héctor Escobedo, and Zachary Nelson. 2008. Encontrando el contexto para la historia y la historia para el contexto: Excavaciones en la estructura K-5 de Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Mayab 20: 45-63.

Pontrandolfo, Angela, and Agnès Rouveret. 1992. Le tombe dipinte di Paestum. Franco Cosimo Panini, Modena.

Potter, David. 2012. The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ruppert, Karl. 1935. The Caracol at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 454. Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.

_____________. 1952 Chichen Itza: Architectural Notes and Plans. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 595. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Sharer, Robert J., David W. Sedat, Loa P. Traxler, Julia C. Miller, and Ellen E. Bell. 2005. Early Classic Royal Power in Copan: The Origins and Development of the Acropolis (ca. A.D. 250-600). In Copán: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom, edited by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L Fash, pp. 139-199. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 373-425. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.

Stuart, David. 2013. Tonina’s Curious Ballgame.

Thompson, Edward H. 1938. The High Priest’s Grave, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Anthropological Series, Field Museum of Natural History 27(1). Chicago.

Ville, Georges. 1981. La gladiature en Occident des origines à la mort de Domitien. Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, fasc. 245e. Ecole française de Rome, Rome.

Courtesans and Carnal Commerce

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Diego Rivera was clearly fascinated by the riches of the Aztec market at Tlaltelolco. His mural, painted in 1944-1945, visible today on the second floor of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, glories in the vibrancy of an imperial economy. Vendors hawk while merchants bicker, counting with upright fingers. Nearby, slave-traders examine the teeth of human stock. Tortillas are there, too, close to belly-up frogs. Dogs, deer, iguana, and fish lie in good order or, like a fat little xolo dog, they mewl and squirm—all soon to be purchased, cooked, and eaten.

Figure 1.  Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

Figure 1. Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

The most arresting figure, however, is a woman in white (Figure 1). Central to the composition, she hikes her skirt and invites the attention of several leering men. One of them, to upper left, looks like a Rockefeller! At Rivera’s coy insistence, we are all voyeurs. Almost alone in the murals, the woman’s body faces the viewer. Her bright red lipstick, elaborate costume, and long loose hair, described and illustrated in Aztec sources, heighten the wanton allure. Never one for the nuance, Rivera surrounds the lady with an aureole of calla lilies, likely to be Rivera’s coded image for female privates (his portrait of Natasha Zakólkowa Gelman, painted a year earlier, in 1943, uses the same framing device).

Rivera’s lady is, of course, an Aztec prostitute or āhuiyani, someone who gives pleasure but in debased or self-indulgent ways, a “flower woman” (Karttunen 1983:8; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:198). She “lives in wickedness….she goes about in gaudy dress, drunk, besotted,” “shamelessly, presumptuously, conspicuously washed and combed”; she “sells her body” and “paints her face…her hair falls loose”; she goes “about…in the market place,” “places herself at the market, adorns herself at the market place” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:12, 13, 55, 89). Yet, the stern judgment in these phrases from the Florentine Codex—its main promoter was, after all, a Franciscan—does not offer a complete picture, for such women performed openly in sacred dances with warriors (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:93, 98-99, 102, 110; see also Durán 1971:435, in a somewhat opaque source that may refer to more elevated “kept women” who had their own “guardians or duennas”).

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

The “harlot” could also comfort a sacrificial captive. She “caressed him….made him forget his sorrows. And when the time came for the bathed one to die, the harlot took everything…[t]hat which he wore he placed upon her; that which he had when he had been living in the likeness of another, had walked with his head high…had gone in high esteem” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:155). A peculiarity, drawn to my attention by Karl Taube, is that depictions of young and older harlots in the Florentine Codex show them standing on water, grasping flowers in one hand and, curiously, the glyph for water in the other (Figure 2). It is possible but, on reflection, unlikely that this sign merely reinforces the first letter in āhuiyani (from ā-tl, “water”). Underfoot, gripped in the hand, the symbols hint at deeper and more complex meaning.

For a Mayanist, this evidence raises an obvious question. Did such women exist in the Classic period? And, if so, what ambivalences, if any, surround such commercialization of the female body? Most treatments of female identity among the ancient or Colonial Maya do not mention prostitutes (e.g., Joyce 2000) or allude to them in secondary citations (Ardren 2008:8). One source does describe the prostitute in Yucatan but as a being “constructed as an ethnic outsider and an enemy” and, in the Books of Chilam Balam, a figure whose very label is an insult to be thrown at others (Sigal 2000:68, 223).

Yet the early dictionaries refer widely to such figures. For a rapid cull of terms:

Colonial Tzendal (Ara 1986:319, 504): Most terms relate to adultery or fornication but also, when postfixed by xichoc (“man”), to sodomy.

putañero                                lav
putañear                                lael

Colonial Tzotzil (Laughlin 1988, I:221, 253, 263-264): roots based on sexual penetration (kob) and, perhaps, scourging (maj) and “lust” (mul), with the added nuance of concubinage.

whore                                    ‘ix ta majel; kobvan; majavil ‘antz
whoremaster                        mulavil xinch’ok

Colonial Yukatek (Bolles 2001): associated with agouti or hares (tzub), the latter a well-known attribute of the Moon Goddess and a symbol of procreation. For tzub, the meaning is quite explicit: “la muger mala de su cuerpo ora sea publica ora no…Ah con tzubul: puta que ella se comvida y vende” (Bolles 2001); ya’om ties to pregnancy.

manceba (concubine)           tzub
mala mujer de su cuerpo     ya’om
puta pública                           ix kakbach

It could be that these words express a purely colonial preoccupation, a priestly concern for rooting out vice and controlling sexuality. By that view, little prostitution existed before the Spaniards. Such words merely reflected the prurience of missionary minds. But this cannot be the whole story. Speaking of young men, not long after the Conquest, Diego de Landa refers to the wide use of prostitutes: “bad public women”…“who happen to ply this trade among this people, although they received pay for it, were besieged by such a great number of young men, that they were harassed to death” (Tozzer 1941:125). Possibly, as some suggest for the Aztec evidence, the Colonial sources conflated a more accepted Pre-Columbian practice of marketable sex with later versions seen in negative light (Arvey 1988; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:200). As to price, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, writing of Nicaragua, records that the going rate for such acts was 8 to 10 beans of chocolate (Tozzer 1941: 95fn417). To put this in perspective, buying a slave was only 10 times that much (ibid). In all likelihood, sex work was a lucrative business throughout Mesoamerica.

Figure 3.  SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

Figure 3. SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

For the Maya, a key piece of evidence came to light with the discovery of the Chiik Nahb murals at Calakmul, most of which date to the 7th century AD (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012; Martin 2012). Concerned with trade, these paintings appear within what must have been a market facility built at the height of competition between the great cities of Calakmul and Tikal (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:Figure 2; for the standard source on this conflict, see Martin and Grube 2000:104-111). The viewer wonders at the erotic beauty of the serving ladies, their body paint, their jade jewelry. The women pour drinks, offer atole while dressed, at times, in diaphanous clothing that reveals breasts, areola, and plump thighs (Figure 3).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

It is difficult to avoid the sense that the woman offer hospitality and welcome accommodation or participate in marketing, but in subtly sexualized ways. Karl Taube has noted similar trading ladies in figurines from the Alta Verapaz, also bejeweled, gowns slung low, hair carefully coiffed (Figure 4; Houston et al. 2006:110, fig. 3.4). Vending women have been seen, too, in other traditions of Lowland Maya figurines (Halperin 2014:fig. 3.36). Many wear hats, perhaps to show that they came from far distances, but possibly to protect a delicate complexion. They both are and are not a standard vendor, involved in trade yet outfitted in ways that appear anomalous.

Unfortunately, the glyphs associated with the principal lady in the Calakmul paintings, the “Lady in Blue,” resist easy decipherment (Martin 2012:78-79). A more overt example of “good time gals,” from a bowl dating to about AD 600 may connect to a term for “water-place,” IX-HA’?-NAL (Figure 5, Coe 1978:pl. 11; Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.18). These women, certain to be goddesses, service older deities. They stroke their sides, fan faces or hold up mirrors while the men daub their mouths or faces. Most carry exactly the same name—a token of shared identity?—or use a sparse description, IX, “female.” The watery attribute of Aztec prostitutes seems more than a coincidence. It may reflect some widespread notion of “watery women” or “women of watery locales” whose sexual behavior differed, in unsettling, less controllable ways, from that of other ladies.

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Another term occurs with paramours of God L on the celebrated “Princeton Vase” (K511, Coe 1978:pl. 1). Repainted in parts, their glyphic labels involve two securely deciphered signs, IX, “lady,” and NAAH, “building”—the finale female, just by God L, is described as one of “five” (HO’) such women, quite a harem. The less clear sign is the head variant of the number “two.” It could read CHA’, suggesting a homophone for “metate,” cha’, thus linking the ladies to a gendered place, a “house of grinding stones.” But there is another possibility. The head variant has a human fist, fingers obscured, atop the head of a youth or young woman. The fist corresponds exactly to the glyph for OCH, “enter” (Stuart 1998:fig. 8) and may spell out a term for “entered” (“penetrated”?) lady. Thus, by this second analysis: IX-OCH-‘Female’-NAAH, “lady of the entered/penetrated-female house”…or “brothel.” Still, it is unclear how this would relate to a semblant deity name on Palenque’s Tablet of Temple XIV:C9.

The main point is that these women are unlikely to be spouses. A plausible view is that they traffic in generous reception and consumption, with more than a hint of physical favors to come. Two ideas arise. The first is that, at Calakmul the Lady in Blue embodied, if not a real historical person, then the essence of gracious hospitality. Or, as a bolder suggestion and a nod to the eroticism of the murals, she operated as an exemplary or deified procuress, patronized rather than punished by the state, a facilitator who attracted other kinds of business. She labored, it seems, away from direct male supervision; she took charge. There was no partner, no husband. In one image, a young woman, a mere drab, perhaps a unique depiction of a Maya slave, served as her assistant (Figure 2). The Florentine Codex says of the procuress: “She is of a house…She induces, seduces with words, incites with others. Adroit of language, skilled of speech, she is a fraud…She receives guests. She secures recompense, payment from others. She robs one—she constantly robs one” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:94). However, if present at Calakmul, such a woman discharged a role of dignity and importance.

What to make of the scenes at Calakmul? According to a recent, cross-cultural review, compensated or venal sex tends to divide by practitioner, ranging from streetwalkers and occupants of brothels to “well-educated and often financially secure” courtesans (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Eroticized entertainment did not always lead to consummation. As an exalted outlier, the geisha or geiko of Japan seldom—at least in the ideal—consorted sexually with clients, especially after the system began to coalesce in the 18th century (Downer 2006:223). Whatever the status, sex workers left archaeological signatures in the form of cells or “cribs,” characteristic forms of consumption, such as “alcohol and luxury food consumption…in binge economies,” and, “in the case of high-end prostitutes, an investment in wearable wealth” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:46). Indeed, a sexual purpose may explain the buildings with tightly packed, benched rooms near sweatbaths at Piedras Negras (e.g., Structure O-3; Child 2006:fig. 4.23; also Houston et al. 2006:117, fig. 3.13). Globally, the cultural impact was great. An entire volume of comparative scholarship extols the arts of the courtesan, from music to poetry and dance (Feldman and Gordon 2006).

Prostitution has been described as the “oldest profession” and as the “oddest,” an “illicit commerce in which it is the labor performed, rather than goods or distribution system, that is the object of state control” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Yet how “illicit” was such commerce? In Roman Pompeii, prostitution was quite “licit” if heavily exploitative (McGinn 2004:261-262). At the least, there is evidence of ambivalence. In Edo Japan, various shogun or city officials tried to restrict the “floating world,” the demi-monde of sex workers, musicians, and actors, to sectors like Yoshiwara, near modern-day Asukasa in Tokyo (Screech 1999:53). But this was not because of disdain for sex. The most likely reason was curtailment of possible places for intrigue or periodic anxiety that the values of the “floating world” would soften society.

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

More the point, the “Lady in Blue” raises basic matters of identification. Scholars often refer to “noble” ladies or “idealized elite” women and goddesses in imagery of the Classic Maya period. This applies to Jaina figurines, too (O’Neil 2012:409). But what if an entire category of Maya society has been overlooked? As Michael Coe observes, the females participating in enema rituals could have been ladies of pleasure (personal communication, 2014). Consider the fully-modeled container at the Princeton Art Museum, with its flower-markings, elaborate dress, and loudly painted lips and forehead (Figure 6). Or the Early Classic scene on an enema pot from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1993.441) and tapaderas on Early Classic food bowls (K1550, K189). Then there is the image, from the Princeton Art Museum, of an elaborately dressed woman giving an enema to a trader (Figure 7). Could “elite” ornament or jewelry only have been the commissions of dynastic figures and other nobles? Or, consistent with cross-cultural data, were some baubles ordered in quantity by courtesans?

Sex work has its own history. As one example from archaic Greece, the high-status hetaira—the most polished of courtesans—was probably fashioned under the impetus of aristocratic males, who sought to redefine their own masculinity by interaction with such females (Kurke 1997). Through women’s bodies and, tragically, through their abuse, men worked out what it meant to be men (Glazebrook and Henry 2011:9). Perhaps this same aestheticized redefinition of roles affected the “pretty ladies” of the Classic period.

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

The curious feature of the Calakmul evidence is its contrast with Rome, which was less involved in direct control of sex work and accorded it some degree of “autonomy” (McGinn 2004:263). If correctly identified, the practices shown there and elsewhere bear the heavy impress of polity. The building in which the murals were found can only have been a royal commission, involving painters and scribes of the highest and most inventive attainment. This was no casual commerce but a systematic use of female bodies for dynastic advancement.

Acknowledgements: Mike Coe, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube were most helpful with comments

Sources cited:

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Ardren, Traci. 2008. Studies of Gender in the Prehispanic Americas. Journal of Archaeological Research 16:1-35.

Arvey, Margaret C. 1988. Women of Ill-Repute in the Florentine Codex. The Role of Gender in Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture, edited by Virginia Miller, pp. 179-204. University Press of America, Lanham.

Bolles, David. 2001. Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language,, accessed June 2, 2014.

Carrasco Vargas, Ramón, and María Cordiero Baqueiro. 2013. The Murals of Chiik Nahb Structure 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 8-59, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Child, Mark B. 2006. The Archaeology of Religious Movements: The Maya Sweatbath Cult of Piedras Negras. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven.

Coe, Michael D. 1978. Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Princeton Art Museum, Princeton.

Dieseldorff, Erwin P. 1926. Kunst und Religion der Mayavölker im alten und heutigen Mittelamerika. Julius Springer, Berlin.

Downer, Lesley. 2006. The City Geisha and Their Role in Modern Japan: Anomaly or Artistes? The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, 223-242. Oxford University Press, New York.

Durán, Diego. 1971. Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Feldman, Martha, and Bonnie Gordon, eds. 2006. The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Oxford University Press, New York.

Glazebrook, Allison, and Madeleine Henry. 2011. Introduction: Why Prostitutes? Why Greece? Why Now? Greek Prostitutes in the Mediterranean, 800 BCE-200 CE, 3-13. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Halperin, Christina A. 2014. Maya Figurines: Intersections between State and Household. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Hartnett, Alexandra, and Shannon L. Dawdy. 2013. The Archaeology of Illegal and Illicit Economies. Annual Review of Anthropology 2013 42:37-51.

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

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2000. Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Karttunen, Frances. 1984. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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Martin, Simon. 2013. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

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

McCafferty, Sharisse D., and Geoffrey G. McCafferty. 2009. Alternative and Ambiguous Gender Identities in Postclassic Central Mexico. Que(er)ying Archaeology: Proceedings of the 30th Annual Chacmool Conference, edited by Susan Terendy, Natasha Lyons, and Michelle Janse-Smekal, pp. 196-206. Archaeological Association, University of Calgary Press, Calgary.

McGinn, Thomas A. J. 2004. The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

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Screech, Timon. 1999. Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan 1700-1820. Reaktion Books, London.

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A Game with a Throne Reply

by Stephen Houston, Department of Anthropology, Brown University

For GS on his birthday

Epigraphy is, among others things, an exercise in good hygiene. As specialists, we tidy up. Through our drawings, a complex surface reduces to light stipple, a series of edges to inked lines of variable width. The results are there for all to see, in the form of legible images that facilitate study, comparison, and reproduction.

Yet the images do not quite capture a stone. Each sculpture has its own quarry marks and irregularities; there are peck-marks or chisel lines, along with signs of careful or rough handling. Such details seldom make their way into an epigraphic drawing. Nor, with a few exceptions, do our site maps, even good ones, display sculptures as they were first found. Instead, monuments appear in orderly rows, as though still standing (e.g., Graham and von Euw 1975, 2:6, 2:7). They are in the places where they should be, or might have been when freshly placed, not as they were when discovered.

At Caracol, green to Maya fieldwork—this was in 1985—I confronted the curious afterlife of Maya texts. The carvings seemed anything but tidy. Most lay in shocking disarray, broken into pieces, some far-flung. Later, at Dos Pilas, in 1986, I resolved to record such patterning. Fortunately, at that site, most monuments were still in original position. They had not much shifted from the time of the Maya Collapse.

It soon became clear that, with few exceptions, the stelae at Dos Pilas were hacked just above the butt. Felled by blows of an axe, the sculptures, cut at the “knees,” toppled either backwards or forwards, not by the impact of tree fall, but from concerted ancient effort. There was behavioral information here, worthy of mention. Inspired, I drew the plans of all sculptures at the site, their cross-sections (where possible), even the profiles and block arrangements of hieroglyphic stairways (e.g., Houston 1993:fig. 2-8, 3-3, 3-7, 3-8, 3-9, 3-10, 3-14). My maps showed fall patterns at larger scale, especially of the stela at the site (Houston 1993:Site Map 1, Grid L5, Site Map 3, Grid P5). I was not alone in this interest. Looking at Panel 19 after its discovery in 1990, Ed Shook, a wise, old hand at Maya archaeology, observed that many blows of an axe had played across its surface.

To me, this approach represented the future of epigraphy as a field discipline. Sculptures could and should be shown by presumed initial placement or as flat, reproducible surfaces. But they were also three-dimensional things tumbling through time—pieces of transported, worked stone touched variably by nature, reverence, and malice. As rocks, they had dimension, weight, signs of quarrying, chipping, knapping, chiseling, polishing, and painting, features that could be processed and massaged statistically. Yet, from my perspective, the conversation between lithicists and epigraphers has yet to begin beyond these faltering steps. (Enterprising students take note!)

The fact is, most sculptures get moved after discovery. Yet not everyone is inclined to note their original position. A photographer may pivot or adjust the monument to the right angle for photography. Or, as at Tonina in recent decades, archaeologists appear to trundle texts off to the local museum, where provenience is known to few (and God). Find-spot is certainly not mentioned in any public display or report available to scholars. This seems more than an oversight—it is an out-and-out shame. Initial documentation is the key, as is the act of making those observations available to others.

At Piedras Negras, where I worked from 1997 to 2000, and again in 2004, sculptures have shifted many times. Their original position is usually reconstructible and shown as such on maps. But their archaeological placement, as objects left by the Maya, remains enigmatic, in key examples. Héctor Escobedo, my co-director, found that J. Alden Mason—a gifted prose stylist and indifferent excavator—had heaped at least 4 to 5 m of backfill atop Stela 18. (Héctor was looking for the axis of Structure O-13, the pyramid that backed the stela.) Despite diligent search, we continue to be only vaguely aware of the original location of Stela 40, a monument showing ancestral rites that came from the terrace in front of Structure J-3.

Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City. Photograph by Mary Dodge.

Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City (Photograph by Mary Dodge)

Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropología y Etnología in Guatemala City, is a more fortunate case (Figure 1). Found shattered in a recessed, corbelled niche in Structure J-6 of the palace, it had been duly recovered and pieces reassembled in their current form; a few small fragments, daubed bright red, occur in storage at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (see Figure 2 for J-6 and its access stairway, as cleaned off in 1933). The throne plays an important role in Maya cultural history, its ancient destruction being taken by J. Eric Thompson as possible evidence of “superstitious fear” by later Maya or of “revolting peasants” enraged at this “symbol of their civil bondage” (Thompson 1966:108).

Figure 1. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Figure 2. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Not long ago, while looking at the image taken by Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., of the throne after its initial clearing, I realized that a more precise documentation of the Throne 1’s afterlife was possible. A fuller study would involve a closer study of patched edges on the original in Guatemala City, especially of the horizontal text on the bench itself, but the photograph taken by Satterthwaite in 1932 spells out where many of the blocks were first found. By looking at outlines and areas of exposed carving, and inserting cleaned images of those fragments, one can see how the throne was broken apart (Figures 3a and 3b). I suspect that some of the blocks had been removed unwittingly when workers cleared fill. Too late, Satterthwaite, who tended to work out of the camp, found the error.

Figure 2. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Figure 3a. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Figure 3. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Figure 3b. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

The throne was an obvious casualty of violence, just as Thompson said. The left and right sides of the throne had been removed from the niche and placed face-up, more-or-less in correct, relative position. But the human faces that adjoined them, also face-up, had been moved in one case—that of the figure to the left—all the way behind a frontal column. The snout of the witz lay on the step of the outer doorway. Strangely, the hieroglyphic supports, although in correct relative position, were both face-up, yet with each top touching the other in opposed position. The special targets of violence, and their weakest points structurally, were the human faces and points of transition to the witz. It seems likely that the throne back had been dragged out of its niche and only then attacked. One possible culprit, as suggested by David Stuart from Lintel 10 at Yaxchilan, is the final ruler of that site, K’ihnich Tatbu Jol (Stuart 1998).

Figure 5. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)

Figure 4. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)

The area of the throne was excavated by Ernesto Arredondo and me in 1998, and the area proved to have shallow stratigraphy (Houston and Arredondo 1998:108-109): an earlier, wider building, and bedrock only about 40 cm. below the final floor of Str. J-6. A stairway, only partly preserved, led from the throne room to an elevated floor to the west—this may have allowed the ruler to approach the throne without stepping outside to public view (Figure 4). No diagnostic sherds came from the lower level, but it surely dated to the Yaxche period, from about AD 625 to 750. The visible throne room was certainly Chacalhaaz in date, c. AD 750 to 830. Indeed, Throne 1 gives us a more precise date for this building known as cha-hu-ku-NAAH, perhaps Chahuk Naah, “House of Lightning” or “House of Thunder”: its dedication, probably written as EL-NAAH, took place on the Period Ending of, Nov. 3, AD 785. It is likely to have been Ruler 7’s first great commission in the Acropolis, a dramatic reconfiguration of Patio 1, the space in front, as a place for reception of tribute, captives, and visitors, but never of equals.

Figure 4. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (drawing by Stephen Houston)

Figure 5. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (Drawing by Stephen Houston)

Other fragmentary thrones are known at Piedras Negras. The University of Pennsylvania found one, Throne 2, re-used in the Str. K-6a ballcourt ([] 11 Ajaw *18 Ch’en. Aug. 21, AD 662 [Martin-Skidmore correlation]), and our project found Throne 3 (Figure 5) in the fill of Str. O-17, possibly an unfinished structure.

I believe the presence of two shattered thrones, both connected to Ruler 2, Itzam K’anahk, suggests some refurbishment of the Acropolis, where such thrones were presumably placed. Perhaps they had been destroyed during that construction and their pieces inserted into fill nearby. Throne 3 is probably earlier because of its ch’ok title. Indeed, it may be the sole remains of his very accession throne, for Ruler 2 was only 12 years of age when he succeeded to power.

Luis Romero, a Guatemalan archaeologist who worked with us on the Piedras Negras Project, has subsequently restored the J-6 stairway, finding at least one new cache in the process. When I last saw it, in 2004, the throne room looked sorry indeed, a hole punched in the back by idle looters, and the roots of a ramon tree curving in threatening arc towards the wall. The Throne Building is as forlorn as it was when left by assailants in the 9th century AD.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I thank Eric Schnittke of the Penn Museum Archives for permission to reproduce Figures 2 and 3.


Graham, Ian, and Eric von Euw. 1975. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 1: Naranjo. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

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

Houston, Stephen D., and Ernesto Arredondo Leiva. 1999. In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 3, Tercera Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 105-118. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Stuart, David. 1998. Una Guerra entre Yaxchilán y Piedras Negras? In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 2, Segunda Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 389-392. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1966. The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. 2nd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.