The Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway

by Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania

The summer of 2016 produced discoveries of tremendous importance for understanding the political history of the Classic Maya lowlands. While excavating Structure A9 at Xunantunich, Belize, Jaime Awe and his team unearthed two inscribed monuments of rare significance, their contents revealed in detailed textual analyses by Christophe Helmke (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b). These inscriptions support and elaborate some existing proposals, while supplying entirely new twists to the story. What follows are a few thoughts inspired by these finds.

Xunantunich Panels 3 and 4 were immediately recognizable as parts of a hieroglyphic stairway first uncovered at the site of Naranjo (Maler 1908:91-93, Pls.24-28; Morley 1937-38.2:42-59; Graham 1978:107-110). There Teobert Maler uncovered 12 blocks bearing outlined medallions of text in two different formats, one of nine glyph-blocks and the other of four. The Xunantunich stones differ in their larger size and the inclusion of two of the smaller medallions apiece. That the monument had a complex history, with portions of it moved in ancient times, was already clear from the discovery a lone block at Ucanal—first designated in the Naranjo series as Step XIII and later as Ucanal Miscellaneous Stone 1 (Graham 1978:107, 110, 1980:153-154). In regard to its content, it has long been realized that the narrative focus falls on the career of the Caracol king we know as K’an II, repeating much of the information we find on his Caracol Stela 3 (Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:12-22, Figs. 3, 4; Stone, Reents, and Coffman 1985:273-274, Table 1). In this light the stairway’s presence at Naranjo was initially explained as a “conquest monument” erected by K’an II to celebrate his subjugation of Naranjo (Schele and Freidel 1990:174, 178). But there were a number of holes in that argument, and I later suggested that the steps did not originate at Naranjo but were instead brought there from an original setting at Caracol (Martin 2000:57-58).

Xunantunich Panel 4b

Figure 1. Inscribed fragment from Caracol, Str. B5 (drawing by S. Martin, after one by N. Grube in Grube 1994:Fig.9.14a)

That idea was provoked not simply by the Caracol subject matter, but by an inscribed stone fragment excavated by Arlen and Diane Chase from rubble at the foot of Caracol Structure B5 (see Grube 1994:113, Fig.19.4a) (Figure 1). It shared the outlined border and rounded corners of the stairway medallions and, anecdotally, was carved from the same pale grey limestone that one can see when visiting the Naranjo steps stored in the British Museum. Importantly, when the drawing was sized to the scale of those blocks it proved to be a very close match (Martin 2000:Fig.12; see also Helmke and Awe 2016:Fig.3b). The hypothesis put forward was that the Caracol fragment was a discarded piece of the same monument. There is no way to be sure when the stairway was broken up and removed, but we know that Naranjo attacked Caracol in 680, forcing its king to flee, and the 168 days that the Caracol king was exiled would seem to be a good opportunity to seize such a trophy. With two further parts now found at Xunantunich, the dispersal of this dismembered monument proves to be wider still, and Helmke and Awe (2016a:4) have noted the likely significance of both Ucanal and Xunantunich as one-time allies, associates, or clients of Naranjo in the Late Classic period. In short, there may be political meaning behind the distribution.


Figure 2. Step V of the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (HS. 1) (drawing by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:108. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University)

Xunantunich Panel 4 has been identified as part of the opening statement of the inscription, directly following the Long Count of, falling in 642, on Step V of the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (Helmke and Awe 2016b:9, Fig.9) (Figure 2, 3a).[1] The first medallion completes the essentials of the Period Ending and names its presiding deities, but the second pivots to describe a key political upheaval of the time, the shift of the dominant portion of the Snake dynasty from Dzibanche to Calakmul (ibid.:16) (Figure 3b). Such a transfer had been posited from converging lines of evidence pointing to a “reconstitution” of the polity at Calakmul during, or shortly before, the reign of its most important king Yuknoom Ch’een II (Martin 2005). That such an explicit statement is now forthcoming—describing first the negation and then the formation of political authority at the toponyms of Dzibanche (kaanul) and Calakmul (uxte’tuun) respectively—confirms the historicity of this event and demonstrates the significance it held for its contemporaries (Helmke and Awe 2016b:13-16; Martin and Velásquez 2016). The implications of its placement here at the very start of the narrative are startling, since it compels us to see the entire monument as a single metahistory, in which each event contributes to the greater story of the transfer.


Figure 3. Text medallions from Xunantunich Panel 4 (drawings by S. Martin after those by C. Helmke in Helmke and Awe 2016b:Fig.11)

The other find at Xunantunich, Panel 3, has contributed entirely new information (Helmke and Awe 2016a:8-10, Fig.7). Here the first medallion offers us the death-date of K’an II’s mother in 638, while the second presents a further death in 640, this time specified as ti-ye-TUUN-ni ti yehtuun, literally “at the edge of the stone.” The exact meaning of this construction continues to be debated, but there is little doubt that it is associated with an act of violence consistent with execution. The subject is named as Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan and his full k’uhul kaanul ajaw title establishes him as a previously unknown Snake monarch. As Helmke and Awe point out, this sheds immediate light on Step I from Naranjo, where the partially surviving name of this king—absent his title—has him suffering a “star war” defeat in 636 at the hands of another Snake lord, this one a lesser kaanul ajaw, I’ve previously nicknamed Yuknoom Head (see Martin and Grube 2000:106). From this we learn that the break between Dzibanche and Calakmul was a violent one, a conflict that we can essentially characterize as a civil war. Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan evidently spent four years as a captive, or on the run, before he was put to death. Crucially, Panel 3 comes at the very end of the text, its chronology advancing to the same Period Ending in 642 with which the stairway begins. This is the last action recorded on the monument and therefore constitutes its narrative closure—perfectly in line with the metahistorical purpose set out on Panel 4.

* * *

If this summarizes what the Xunantunich discoveries have told us thus far, what other implications can be seen to arise from them? With Panel 4 established as the second block in the program, I believe we can go further with this re-assembly and here I would like to offer a speculative scheme for the next four step-blocks, of which three are currently known. The first move is to suggest that the reference to the Calakmul toponym 3-TE’-TUUN-ni uxte’tuun that ends Panel 4 is part of a pair and joins the other Calakmul toponym, chi[ku]-NAHB chiiknahb, that begins Step XII from Naranjo (Figure 4a). These place-names are paired, in this order, on La Corona Element 13 (formerly Site Q Ballplayer 1) (Stuart and Houston 1994:28-29, Fig.29; also Schele and Miller 1986:257-258, Pl.101), and appear together again on Step VI—if there employed for a different purpose (see below).


Figure 4. Steps XII and XI from the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (HS.1) (drawings by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:110. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University).

But this is not the only argument one can make for the sequencing of these blocks. After a “focus marker” the text on Step XII moves directly to the verb i-pi-tzi-ji ipitzij “then ball is played,” with no subject named. An unusual event to be associated with a Period Ending, this is precisely the verb that re-appears at the close of the program when Xunantunich Panel 3 refers to the upcoming mark (Helmke and Awe 2016a:7, 11, Fig.9).[2] This association is even better evidence that Step XII should be inserted at this point. Symbolic ballgames are regularly associated with monumental steps, where they were staged to celebrate success in war and the subsequent tormenting of prisoners (Miller and Houston 1987:52-63). Indeed, Step XII goes on to name the steps in question with a-ku-?-TUUN-ni u-K’ABA’-ba-a ?-tuun uk’aba’ “?-stone is the name of.” It has been appreciated for some time that this passage continues on Step XI, which begins ye-bu for yehb “the stair of” and then provides the beginning of a royal name (Figure 4b). There can be little doubt that this takes us into the extended name phrase of K’an II.


Figure 5. Steps IX and III from the Naranjo stairway (HS. 1) ([a] drawing by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:109. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University; [b] drawing by S. Martin after photograph by T. Maler)

The next suggested join is less certain. Step II contains the name and emblem glyph of K’an II and would seem to be a possible fit here. However, that text goes on to list two deities which supervise the king’s actions, a construction that does not typically fit with the syntax and subject matter we have here. Instead, Step IX, which also includes the name and titles of K’an II, shares the same double-size glyphs as Step XI and, for this reason alone, is a better candidate (Figure 5a). It might have followed Step XII directly, or via one or more other now-missing steps that made for an even longer nominal sequence. Since Step IX does not include a Caracol emblem glyph or other terminal titles we must assume, lacking a suitable candidate, that the following step is missing. The next contender for a continuation of the sequence is Step III, which is dedicated to the parentage of K’an II (Martin in Grube 1994:107) (redrawn here as Figure 5b). While it could have been placed at other points in the narrative, this first reference to the king would be a typical position. The combined scheme is set out in Figure 6, below.


Figure 6. A speculative scheme for the opening sequence of the Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway. (a) NAR HS.1, Step V; (b, c) XUN Pan. 4; (d) NAR HS.1, Step II, (e) NAR HS.1, Step XI; (f) missing; (g) NAR HS.1, Step III. (Drawings of the Naranjo HS by I. Graham, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University; drawings of Xunantunich panel by S. Martin, after those by C. Helmke in Helmke and Awe 2016b:Fig. 11)

From here on we must turn to the chronology of the stairway, which is one of the more important contributions of the new studies (Helmke and Awe 2016b:Table 2). We still do not know how many step-blocks were in the original composition, but the number of proven joins suggest that a good proportion are already in hand. Of the 13 steps from Naranjo and Ucanal, seven can be fixed in relative order by means of their dates and distance numbers, while four undated ones receive suggested placements in this study. This leaves only two blocks, Steps II and IV (Figure 7a, b). The closest parallel for the supervision of deities on the first of these appears on Caracol Stela 3 at C5-D5, where the same divine oversight takes place at K’an II’s accession in 618. It is not unlikely that the stairway text referred to this important event and one might posit that Step II is a surviving part of that account. If so, this is an area where two or more adjoining blocks must be missing, since we have no Distance Numbers to count to and from that point. Step IV presents a steeper challenge. The text looks very much like a truncated version of the one on Stela 3 at D10b-D14a. There a series of actions are recounted for the day in 622, including the arrival of what seems to be a god effigy of some sort and the presentation of a gift, using the ya-k’a-wa yak’aw verb seen on Step IV, where the Snake king Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ is named as the bestower (the gift may well be the effigy itself). However, Step IV ends with a Distance Number of 14.7.10, which is too large to fit into the slowly accumulating chronology of the stairway as we currently understand it. Since Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ acceded in 622 and died in 630 it cannot link events within his reign. Wherever this stone fits, it is an outlier of some kind, directing us to another event of unknown significance in the future or past.[3]


Figure 7. Steps II and IV of the Naranjo hieroglyphic stairway (HS.1) (Drawings by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:107-8. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University)

* * *

But there is a final nagging feature of the stairway narrative that demands our attention. As we have seen, the known text discusses two characters that bear the full k’uhul kaanul ajaw title of Snake kings, Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (in 630) and Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan (in 636 and 640), as well as one carrying the lesser epithet of kaanul ajaw Yuknoom Head (in 631 and 636) (Figure 8a). Conspicuous by his absence is the Snake king in power when the stairway was commissioned in 642, Yuknoom Ch’een, who had assumed the throne six years earlier in April 636—an event that, according to the new chronology, the stairway completely ignores.[4] I have previously wondered if Yuknoom Head could not be some pre-accession guise for Yuknoom Ch’een since, if true, it would resolve a number of difficulties (Martin 2005:7, n.9).


Figure 8. Comparison of names of Yuknoom Head from Steps VI and I of the Naranjo hieroglyphic stairway (drawings by S. Martin after personal inspection of the originals).

To examine this question, we should begin by comparing what we know of each character. In addition to his mentions on the stairway, Yuknoom Head is twice named on Caracol Stela 3, at D20a and F4a, where he is linked to conflicts in 627 and 631. The later of the two is the great triumph also commemorated on Step VI, his conquest of Naranjo by means of a “star war.” The earlier one is a battle credited to K’an II which is done yiitij/yitaaj “with” Yuknoom Head (this phrase is syntactically scrambled so that the Caracol emblem glyph can complete the rear face text). This no doubt indicates cooperative military action between the two polities, though not necessarily as equals. Although Yuknoom Head is without title here, the reference is consistent with his lack of kingly status since Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ was alive at this time. When Yuknoom Head battles the next k’uhul kaanul ajaw, Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan, in the “civil war” of 636 he is identified with a combination where his title ka-KAAN[AJAW] overlays his name, which can be seen only as yu[ku] at top and li below (Figure 8b). This is not a unique case, not dissimilar amalgams occur in the texts of the later Calakmul king Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, for example on Calakmul Stela 52 at G1.[5]

Turning now to Yuknoom Ch’een, until recently we knew nothing of his career before his attack on Dos Pilas in 648 (Guenter 2003). However, one of the new La Corona panels delivers a much earlier reference, describing a ballgame he conducted at that site in February 635 (Stuart 2012). It is notable that this date falls between the two mentions of Yuknoom Head on the stairway. The ballgame occurs 54 days before a “foundation” event—a verb associated with both newly installed and restored royal authority—which appears to take place at Dzibanche (Stuart 2012; Martin and Velásquez 2016). Evidence from Calakmul establishes that Yuknoom Ch’een took the role of “founder” in its short dynastic count, clearly claiming that he was the first Snake king at that site (Martin 2005:7-8). However, on Step VI a reference to Yuknoom Head as “at Uxte’tuun, Chiik Nahb Person” appears to place him as the first Snake dynast at Calakmul (Tokovinine 2007:19-21). Yuknoom Ch’een acceded to office just 58 days after Yuknoom Head’s victory over Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan, and the two events seem connected—indeed that the second appears to be dependent on the first (see also Helmke and Awe 2016b:18).

To recap, here is a chronology of the major events falling between 630 and 640:       630     Death of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (Ucanal Misc. Stone 1)

         01.04.09 +       631     Naranjo conquered by Yuknoom Head (Naranjo HS Step VI & Caracol St. 3)

         03.03.07 +       635     Ballgame of Yuknoom Ch’een  (La Corona Elements 33 & 35)

               02.14 +       635     Foundation at(?) kaanul  (La Corona Element 33)

               16.08 +       636     Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan defeated by Yuknoom Head (Naranjo HS. Step I)

               02.18 +       636     Accession of Yuknoom Ch’een  (Calculated from La Corona Altar 1)

          04.04.07 +       640     Execution of Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan  (Xunantunich Panel 3)


What are we to make of all this? Lacking a clear solution, we are left with two main scenarios:

(1) Yuknoom Head and Yuknoom Ch’een were contemporaries, perhaps siblings or a father and son. The former was established at Calakmul by at least 631 (kaanul having at some point replaced an existing dynasty there) and after the death of Tajoom Ukab K’ahk’ he fought the next king and holder of the k’uhul kaanul ajaw title Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan. He succeeds but, possibly wounded or killed, disappears at much the same moment and Yuknoom Ch’een quickly takes on the kingly mantle; or (2) The same set of events unfold but Yuknoom Head is either a pre-accession name, or simply a distinct or more elaborated moniker, for Yuknoom Ch’een. It would be the same person who establishes a base at Calakmul, attacks Naranjo, triumphs in the civil war, and assumes the full Snake title.

There are pros and cons to both positions. If the stairway seeks to encapsulate the instantiation of legitimate authority and practical power at Calakmul, how can the first true Snake king there—and the current one at that—be excluded from the narrative? Was the immense influence that Yuknoom Ch’een later displayed based on no more than his good fortune in inheriting the accomplishments of his predecessor, or was it instead grounded in spectacular successes from his early career? The strongest counter-argument is that it would be very unusual for a pre-regnal name to so closely resemble that of an eventual king. That point recedes if the form were instead an unusually complete or alternative name for Yuknoom Ch’een, since Classic Maya kings had lengthy nominal sequences and the short name ubiquitously ascribed to him can only be one part of it. Snake kings seem especially prone to having different parts of their name emphasized at different places and times (e.g. Martin and Beliaev, in press). Even so, it is patently an obstacle that no other source associates him with the form given at Caracol.

* * *

To conclude, the finds at Xunantunich provide valuable new insights into Caracol’s hieroglyphic stairway and the events it describes. It is a Period Ending monument, but one dedicated to the ritual ballgame that appropriately chimes with the martial flavor of the whole text. Beyond that, its rhetorical purpose is to assert K’an II’s support for the new Snake order, presenting its own wars against Naranjo as contributions to the decisive Calakmul triumph over that rival in 631. K’an II was a self-declared client of the kaanul dynasty, having received his royal headband in a ceremony supervised by Yuknoom Ti’ Chan in 619, the year after his initial accession (Martin 2009, 2014:184). He continued to be a dutiful subject ally in the time of Yuknoom Ti’ Chan’s successor, Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’—accounting for the positive contact with that king—but evidently took common cause with Yuknoom Head against Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan. Alex Tokovinine (pers. comm. 2016) suggests that the wars between Naranjo and Caracol arose because they backed different sides in the civil war. Here Naranjo, itself a long-time vassal to the kaanul kings, would play the loyalist and thus enemy to the aspiring power of Calakmul, whereas Caracol supported the breakaway and the stairway celebrates the success of that choice. Yet the general struggle must have begun somewhat earlier, in the time of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’, since Caracol was at odds with Naranjo from at least 626. The data demonstrate that as early as 642 the rise of Calakmul was considered to be a significant development in the political landscape of the central lowlands, one worthy of special record. The following decades of Yuknoom Ch’een’s rule would more than bear out that judgement, as the Snake dynasty drew ever more royal houses into its orbit and came closer than any of its rivals to forming a Maya “imperium.”


My thanks go to David Stuart, Stephen Houston, and Christophe Helmke who made helpful comments in the development of this text.


[1] Theoretically, there could be an intervening Lunar Series on another block or blocks. However, the direct join between Glyph F on Naranjo HS Step VI and 18 K’ank’in on the first medallion of Xunantunich Panel 4 makes that unlikely.

[2] David Stuart (pers. comm. 2016) reminds me of a pair of monuments at Ceibal (Seibal)—Stela 5 and 7— that show a single king equipped with ballplaying gear, where the texts also associate a Period Ending with a game.

[3] Following incremental insights and corrections from Spinden and Joyce, Morley (1937-38.2:44) connected this Distance Number of 14.7.10 to the terminal mark of This would date the missing event to in 628, which has no outside corroboration but does at least have the merit of falling within the reign of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’.

[4] It could be argued that the lack of interest shown in Yuknoom Ch’een was because K’an II had, by means of his support for the new regime, pulled away from kaanul supervision. There may be something to that, but the grandiosity of this monumental statement—which serves to glorify Calakmul—must place as much of an eye on the present and future as it does on the past.

[5] The names of Yuknoom Head and Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil share several features. Both show the yu[ku] conflation atop a human face with a dot on its cheek, together with a li suffix (Martin 2005:5, n.5). The same form appears in the name of an unrelated sculptor on Calakmul Stela 51 (Martin, Houston, and Zender 2015) and, more distantly, at Palenque where K’inich Kan Bahlam II is associated with the same name as a child (Tablet of the Foliated Cross, G4, and Tablet of the Sun, J2). Variable elements are cloth-like projections extending over the cheek, an infixed k’in sign that might signal CH’EEN (none of the examples are sufficiently well-preserved to be clear on this point), and a TOOK’ “flint” sign. Yuknoom Head’s name does not include these, but on Caracol Stela 3 at D20a we might see the presence of the arm-and-stone motif that cues the god-name YOPAAT, but that identification remains uncertain.


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The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Note: The following post, a bit off-topic from the world of Maya hieroglyphs, is excerpted from a larger work now in preparation, provisionally titled “The Face of the Cosmos: Further Interpretations of the Aztec Calendar Stone”

Figure 1. Photograph of the sculpted face of the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.

Figure 1. Photograph of the sculpted face of the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.

After over two centuries of intensive scholarly attention and commentary there would seem little left to say about the symbolism of the so-called Calendar Stone or Piedra del Sol of Tenochtitlan, the single most iconic image of Aztec culture and ancient Mexico (Figure 1). Much has been written and debated about its imagery and iconography, yet a few basic questions regarding its intended meaning continue to be the subject of discussion and even fervent disagreement. If nothing else its varied interpretations reveal that the full significance of this quintessential Mesoamerican object, like much of Aztec and Maya iconography, still remains beyond our reach. Or, as Villela, Robb and Miller (2010:4) point out, “for all that has been written on the Calendar Stone, we can be sure that it has not yet full revealed its secrets.”

The truth of this statement comes across as soon as one delves into the long-running debate over the identity of the face at the very center of the design (Figure 2). It seems at once integral to the larger design of the solar disc as well as to the Olin day sign that forms the Nahui Olin (“Four Movement”) name of the current sun or era.  Early in the twentieth century, Eduard Seler and Hermann Beyer were adamant that the visage at the center of the disc was that of Tonatiuh, or “an image of the sun, no more and no less,” as Seler (1904a:797) once put it. This became the standard interpretation reinforced by numerous publications over the ensuing decades. However, Navarrete and Heyden (1974) proposed that the face was rather that of the animate earth, Tlalteuctli. Around the same time Townsend (1979) made a similar interpretation in his important study of Aztec imperial art. And in a somewhat related vein Klein (1976) rejected the traditional Tonatiuh interpretation in favor of seeing it as the face of the night sun, Yohualteuctli. In this essay I would like to add some additional thoughts on this key question, based on epigraphic clues in the surrounding design, suggesting that it may also have a firm historical identity as a deified portrait of the Mexica ruler Moteuczoma II.

Calendar Stone center photo

Figure 2. The central Nahui Olin glyph of the Calendar Stone.

Figure 3. S simpler example of the hieroglyph for Nahui Olin (Four Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the standard Olin element.

Figure 3. A standard presentation of the hieroglyph for Nahui Olin (Four Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Olin element. From the Codex Borbonicus.

The face itself is clearly embedded within the hieroglyphic forms around it. As Klein noted (1976:9), the face’s location in the center of the Olin glyph points to it being a graphic elaboration on the central eye motif that appears in nearly all other (simpler) examples of the Olin sign (Figure 3). This surely plays off of the full range of meanings of the Nahuatl noun ixtli, meaning “face, eye, surface” (Kartunen 1983:121). This is an important detail to consider, for it suggests that the central face, as a more visually developed ixtli, is more integral to the Olin sign than to the solar disc. In depicting a face at the center, the Nahuatl-speaking artist(s) thus chose to develop the Olin’s design in a way that was linguistically and conceptually logical. Interestingly, ixtli can have a more abstract notion of “identity” – the diagnostic “face” of a person or thing.  The last of these definitions of ixtli is of special note given the many varied interpretations of the central visage proposed over the last several decades. Here we see how language serves as an important conceptual baseline for interpreting the Calendar Stone’s composition and hieroglyphic design – something that seems underappreciated in some of what has been written on the monument and Aztec art in general.

Before the 1970s nearly all scholars followerd Seler and Beyer in seeing the central face as a straightforward portrait of Tonatiuh, the sun god. Differing interpretations have largely hinged on two features of the central visage — the knife-tongue of that emerges from the grimacing mouth and the clawed appendages that flank the face, each grasping a human heart.  According to Navarrete and Heyden (1974) and Townsend (1979) these were clear indications that the face is that of Tlalteuctli, the earth lord. As Navarrete and Heyden concluded:

…nos parece que el rostro esculpido en medio del Calendario Azteca or Piedra del Sol, no es de Tonatiuh sino de Tlaltecuhtli, que irrumpe hacia arriba mirando al cielo, de acuerdo con la verdadera posición del monumento, esculpido y dedicado al Quinto Sol, el Sol de movimiento de Tierra, Nahui Ollin, o 4 Movimiento (Navarrete and Heyden 1976:374).

Townsend furthermore noted, “the idea that the central mask of the Sun Stone represents the face of the earth, and not the face of Tonatiuh, ‘the sun,’ is consistent with the enclosing glyph ollin” (Townsend 1979:69). This is because of the common translation of olin as “earthquake” (its meaning is actually a bit more general, hence my preference for “movement” or “quake”), and perhaps also that the meaning of the corresponding seventeenth day in other Mesoamerican cultures includes “earth” (for example, the Maya day Caban < kab, “earth”). In his view the central visage represented “both the sacred earth and the territory of the Mexica nation” (Townsend 1979:69).  Such interpretations in favor of Tlalteuctli, the animate earth, at the center of the Calendar Stone seem compelling for two reasons: the face’s formal qualities as well as the stone’s original orientation as a flat, upward-facing surface. Spatially this all seems to make considerable sense.

The Tlalteuctli interpretation failed to win over all specialists in Aztec iconography, however. In a nuanced and influential study, Cecilia Klein (1976) also called into question the traditional Tonatiuh identification but proposed that the central face is neither a direct representation of the sun nor of the earth.  Rather she interpreted it as an image of Yohualteuctli, the “Night Lord,” who Seler had specifically identified as the nocturnal sun within the Underworld.  As Klein noted, “since Yohualtecuhtli was a god of the earth, darkness, death and the south a center of the world, his appearance in a context of the world at the center of the earth in the middle of the night is far more logical than would be that of Tonatiuh” (Klein 1976:10). Klein suggested that a specific aspect of a solar being is at the center of the Calendar Stone, just not its more obvious aspect as the warming Tonatiuh who rises in the eastern sky.

Nicholson (1993:14) offered a strong rejoinder to all of the many alternate interpretations that emerged in the 1970s, preferring to adhere to Seler and Beyer’s original and more direct interpretation: “Despite all of the recent efforts on the part of many serious students to refute or significantly modify the traditional view that this image represents Tonatiuh, the diurnal solar diety, I believe the best evidence still supports this identification.”  Nicholson noted that the knife-tongue of the central face was not necessarily a strong diagnostic feature of Tlateuctli, appearing with some frequency on images of other other deities in Aztec iconography. Nicholson was not even sure of the knife-tongue’s “debatable” significance.

To complicate the debate further, Felipe Solís more recently noted that the central face of the headdress of this Calendar Stone’s might be best interpreted as Xiuhteuctli, the “Turquoise Lord,” considered the god of “the center of the universe, whose image has hybrid characteristics of the earth and underworld” (Solís Olquín 2000:36). He based this assertion on a consideration of the headband, seeing its central jewel as a variant of the xiuhtototl bird, considered a diagnostic feature of that deity (see also Matos Moctezuma 2004:63).

Although such arguments reflect significant disagreement regarding the identity of the central face, they also could reveal the inherent ambiguity in identifying some Aztec deities as singular, discrete entities. The rigid either-or dichotomies of those earlier studies go against the more fluid senses of identity that Aztec artisans and theologians ascribed to such religious imagery.  Nicholson was surely correct in pointing out that the animate knife-tongue and clawed hands clutching hearts pertain to different supernatural beings, but I would argue that their meaning is fairly clear: rather than being diagnostic features, they characterize those powerful deities that pierce, cut, take and consume the hearts from human sacrifice. Knives used in sacrifice were, perhaps, metaphorical “tongues” of the sun and of the earth. Both the earth and the sun in their varied aspects are equally viable candidates in this respect. Moreover, I think it also very relevant that one of the hieroglyphs prominently featured in relationship to the central image of the Calendar Stone is 1 Flint (Ce Tecpatl), equally translatable as “1 Knife” (see Figure 4, below). This day-sign shows the same attached eyes and fangs replicated the animated knife-tongue of the central face. As we will see, this hieroglyph carries specific mythological meaning as a calendar name for yet another important Mexica deity.

Decades after the related studies by Klein, Navarrete, Heyden and Townsend, the identify of the central face of the Calendar Stone’s Olin glyph will no doubt continue to be debated. Again, I suspect that a lack of any firm consensus reflects the deliberate intention of the stone’s original designers to present a conflation of forms and spatial ideas.  The face shows a combination of features that at once suggest Tonatiuh as well as the sun’s reflection on or within earth. In other words, a number of merged identifies may play into the overall significance of the central face. Surely the original orientation of the Calendar Stone as an upward-facing monument reflects its earth-bound nature, but it was also a reflection of the sun at zenith  (Taube 2000). And as the face of the Olin sign it presents the animate visage of both terrestrial and celestial “movement.”

There is a good deal more to say about the identity of the central face. What previous writers have neglected to point out is that the designers of the Calendar Stone may have been quite explicit in marking its identification by means of hieroglyphic labels and elements. As I elaborate in the following section, certain hieroglyphic names and designation that are embedded in the design of the Calendar Stone gravitate to the central olin sign and seem to make direct reference to it, serving as labels of identity that have until now gone unrecognized or misunderstood.

Featured within the interior of the design, adjacent to the Olin glyph, are four smaller hieroglyphs grouped into two pairs. Like the four “era” glyphs infixed within the arms of the olin, these are oriented to face one another along the central vertical axis of the composition. At the base of the circle are two date glyphs, 1 Rain and 7 Monkey, the significances of which remain uncertain. Umberger (1988) pointed out that 1 Rain was the day, according to Sahagún, when sacrifices were made to rejuvenate the strength of the king. She notes (ibid.) that “Motecuhzoma, like the sun, apparently needed sacrifices to renew him.” Of the the upper pair of glyphs, the left-most hieroglyph shows a royal xuihuitzolli headband with falling hair and various adornments, opposite a calendrical reference to 1 Flint (Figure 4, in blue). The placement of these hieroglyphs above and in in direct association to the central Olin hieroglyph suggests to my mind that these may have direct bearing on the long-standing question of the identity of the central face.

Calendar Stone, central circle

Figure 4. The two principal hieroglyphs (in blue) adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. To the left is the name of Moteuczoma II, to the right is 1 Flint, the likely calendar name of Huitzilopochtli (Drawing by E. Umberger).

The headdress or headband glyph was seen by Seler and Beyer as a symbolic reference to the spirits of deceased warriors and, by extension, to the eastern sky (Seler 1904). However, Umberger (1981:205, 1988), following an earlier suggestion by Peñafiel (1890), was surely correct to see this as a particularly elaborate version of the name hieroglyph of Moteuczoma II, of which there are many examples on other monuments (Umberger 1981, 1988) (Figure 5). Her groundbreaking insight provided a key historical context for the monument , dating it to between 1503 and 1519, an attribution that is now widely accepted.

Moteuczoma's names

Figure 5. Various examples of Moteuczoma’s name glyph, (g) being from the Calendar Stone. From Hajovsky 2015:Fig. 1.1. (Drawings by P.T. Hajovsky).


The adjacent 1 Flint glyph, opposite the personal name of the ruler, has been variously interpreted. It was the name of a key year in the migration history of the Mexica, marking the departure date from Aztlan and also the year in which the Mexica defeated the Tepenecs early in the reign of Itzcoatl.  However, it is perhaps significant that the 1 Flint glyph here lacks the square xihuitl cartouche that one customarily finds with year records. Perhaps, then, it is not to be taken as an explicit year reference, but as something more oblique and metaphorical. Indeed, in another important insight Umberger (1988) suggested that it should more correctly be seen as the calendrical name of Huitzilopochtli, the patron deity of Tenochtitlan, an embodiment of the sun, and in certain respects Moteuczoma’s supernatural counterpart. This interpretation seems intrinsically attractive given 1 Flint’s visual juxtaposition with Moteuczoma II’s name glyph, as if these were two names associated with and reflective of one another. And in addition to being a probable calendar reference to Huitzilpochtli, 1 Flint may symbolically evoke the theme of heart sacrifice. Here I am reminded of the evident symbolism of the day 1 Etznab (equivalent to 1 Flint) among the Classic Maya. In the mythological text of Temple XIX at Palenque, 1 Etznab is the day of the axe sacrifice of the great alligator(s) by the local dynastic patron god GI (see Stuart 2005:68-75).

Those who accept the presence of Moteuczoma II’s name on the Calendar Stone generally consider his hieroglyph as designating the tlahtoani (ruler) who commissioned the sculpture in the early sixteenth century, not as something more functional or integral within the larger design of the monument. However, it seems reasonable to suppose that the careful and intentional positioning of both the ruler’s name and the 1 Flint glyph (also a name) within the inner circle holds important meaning in the Calendar Stone’s overall composition and meaning, and deserves further consideration.  Simply put, both glyphs are placed directly above the face and its surrounding Nahui Olin glyph, within the circular frame, and thus seem integral to the central design.  This interior placement of the glyphs is highly significant, suggesting that they serve as labels or names. That is to say, they serve to identify the deity represented at the center of the stone as both historical and mythical aspects of the sun. After all, several examples of the Moteuczoma II name glyph accompany portraits of the ruler, such as on the Hackmack Box, the Chapultepec Cliff Sculpture, and the Teocalli of Sacred Warfare (see Figure 5, e and f). In this new interpretation the central face of the Calendar Stone is explicitly labelled as Moteuczoma II as well as an embodiment of 1 Flint, the birth date of Huitzilopochtli. Here we should recall that the 1 Flint name glyph visually echoes an obvious feature of the central face, its flint-knife tongue. The xiuhuitzolli diadem that adorns the name glyph of Moteuczoma likewise bears an animated “flint face,” perhaps visually linking it as well to the central face of the monument.

If we interpret these two related name glyphs as labels for the accompanying image, we naturally must wonder how they pertain to the long debate about the identity of the central face as either the visage of the sun or of the earth. I doubt the issue is so binary and oppositional, as explained above, and prefer to see an intention to convey multiple identifies for the central face. But the key point here is that the monument provides its own explicit indication of two identities: one historical, the emperor Moteuczoma II, and one mythological, the solar aspect of Huitzilopochtli. The face is directly labeled by these hieroglyphs as a portrait of the defied ruler who embodies and exemplifies the Mexica patron god.

As Stephanie Strauss has pointed out to me (personal communication, 2016), one intriguing detail of the inner circle could be taken as indirect support for such a historical identification. If we consider the face to be a deified portrait of the tlahtoani, it is possible see the large pointed form above the head, a feature of the Olin glyph — as a playful visual reference to the ruler’s xuihuitzolli diadem.  Indeed the shape is identical to the diadems when they are seen in frontal view (Figure 6).  And as we can see in Figure 5 above, the very same diadem (in profile view) and the strands of hair visible on other side of the face are the two consistent elements of the king’s name glyphs. In those examples the diadem stands for the word teuc(tli), “lord,” a core term embedded within the name Moteuczoma.

xiuhuitzolli diadem

Figure 6. Comparison of the headband of the Calendar Stone’s central face to the royal xiuhuitzolli diadem as depicted in the Codex Borboniicus.

It seems appropriate then that the central image of the Calendar Stone would be at once cosmological and personalized, linking the cosmic forces of the sun to the persona of the living ruler.  The solar identification of the tlahtoani was elegantly conveyed by the oration of Nezahualpilli, the king of Texcoco, at the accession ceremony of Moteuczoma II, as described in Duran’s Historia:

O most powerful of all the kings on earth! The clouds have been dispelled and the darkness in which we lived has fled. The sun has appeared and the light of the day shines upon us after the darkness that had been brought by the death of your uncle the king. The torch that illuminates this city has again been lighted and today a mirror has been placed before us, into which we are to look (Durán 1994:391)

Here the poetic parallelism is made between the inauguration of the king, the rise of the bright sun, and to the symbolism of New Fire ceremony.  The ruler is the diurnal sun as well as a mirror of the community. All of these metaphors are among the many visual messages that are encoded visually in the design of the Calendar Stone.

To refine these concepts further, it is important to note that the person of the tlahtoani was viewed at times as the embodiment and personification of Huitzilopochtli, himself a specific aspect of the sun. In fact this equation is a basic tenet of ancient Mexica ideology. The core myth of Huitzilopochtli’s birth was a metaphor of solar birth and creation, famously replicated through spatial performance at his shrine in the huey teocalli in the main precinct of Tenochtitlan.  His main weapon, as described in Sahagún and elsewhere, was the xiuhcoatl serpent representing the shooting stars or the sun’s piercing rays, and of course these are the two dominant images at the edge of the Calendar Stone. As Umberger (1987:425) noted, “the ruler, Huitzilopochtli and the sun are closely related in Mexico thought: the ruler is the human imitator of the sun god, and the fortunes of both are compared to that of the sun.” We see this fundamental unity of ruler and patron god depicted in a very overt manner on the Stone of Tizoc, where the one labelled image of that ruler shows him as a conqueror wearing the regal hummingbird headdress of the Mexica patron deity (Hajovsky 2015:104) (Figure 7). I see a similar fusion of identities encoded by the hieroglyphic labels on the Calendar Stone, referring to the deified central face that visually presents itself as a more “generic” cosmic force and actor as the sun, the earth, or as some fusion of the two.  It is the hieroglyphs that provide the specific ideological message.

Tizic Huitzilopochtli

Figure 7. The ruler Tizoc (left) in the guise of Huitzilopochtli. From the Stone of Tizoc. (Photograph by D. Stuart).

We know that elsewhere in Mesoamerica rulers were frequently presented as embodiments of the sun and of calendrical cycles, and in this light the Calendar Stone seems little different. Among the Classic Maya are several images of historical rulers as the hieroglyphs for Ahau, becoming the personified essence of of period endings in the Long Count calendar. On La Palma, Stela 5, for example, the local king of the Lakamtuun royal line is portrayed within a hieroglyph pronounced ajaw, “king,” in the writing of the time period 7 Ahau (Figure 8). In a similar way Maya kings were often shown on ritual occasions and upon their accessions as embodiments of katuns and of other units of time (see Stuart 1996).  I wonder if similar ideas existed among the Mexica, and if the Calendar Stone similarly equates a specific ruler not only with  the sun and with celestial power, but also with a particular calendrical and temporal identity, Nahui Olin. The notion that time itself could be embodied and personified through a living king or queen seems to have been prelevant in Mesoamerican ideology and theology.

7 Ahau ruler

Figure 8. A Maya ruler as the embodiment of the time period 7 Ahau. Detail from El Palma Stela 5. (Preliminary drawing by D. Stuart).

In sum, my tentative identification of the Calendar Stone’s central face as that of Moteuczoma II in deified form remains a working hypothesis.  It is not a portrait in any conventional sense, but rather a mythologized image of the living ruler who embodies other beings and cosmic elements. If true, this new interpretation would add an important new historical dimension to the long-standing questions surrounding the monument and its overall meaning, and of course regarding the old debate of its identity as Tonatiuh or Tlalteuctli, etc.. To my mind either or both of these interpretations seem possible. In any case, layered with these multi-faceted identities are the labels that suggest the face is a deified image of Moteuczoma II as the Mexica patron deity Huitzilopochtli. Whatever other significances the central face may have, these two names appear to be the two specific written identities featured by the artist who designed the Calendar Stone. This iconic monument thus becomes a more overt political, even personalized, statement, featuring the reigning emperor not only in the cosmic role as the reborn sun and/or consuming earth, but also as the embodiment of time in general.

Note and Acknowledgements

Some readers may be confused by the varied spellings of the Aztec ruler’s name. I use Moteuczoma following my former Nahuatl professor, J. Richard Andrews, who long insisted that common spellings such as “Motecuhzoma” or “Moctezuma” don’t accurately reflect the underlying Nahuatl phonology nor the semantic parsing of the name, meaning “One Who Frowns Like a Lord.”

I thank Emily Umberger and Stephen Houston, who provided very useful feedback. As noted, this essay is an excerpt of a longer study of the Calendar Stone now in preparation, much of which grew out of from my UT-Austin course on Aztec art in the fall of 2015, and a graduate seminar on Mesoamerican iconography in the spring of this year.  I would also like to thank a number of students and colleagues at UT-Austin for their insights, including Tim Beach, Elliot Lopez-Finn, Edwin Román Ramirez, Sergio Romero, and, especially, Stephanie Strauss, who first pointed out the possible diadem on the Calendar Stone’s central face.


Durán, Fray Diego. 1994. The History of the Indies of New Spain. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Hajovsky, Patrick Thomas. 2015. On the Lips of Others: Moteuczoma’s Fame in Aztec Monuments and Rituals. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Kartunnen, Francis. 1988. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Klein, Cecilia. 1976. The Identity of the Central Deity on the Aztec Calendar Stone. The Art Bulletin 58(1):1-12.

Navarrete, Carlos, and Doris Heyden. 1974. La cara central de la piedra del sol: una hipótesis. Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl, vol. XI, pp. 355-376.

Nicholson, Henry B. 1993. The Problem of the Identification of the Central Image of the Aztec Calendar Stone. In Current Topics in Aztec Studies: Essays in Honor of Dr. H.B. Nicholson. San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego.

Peñafiel, Antonio. 1890. Monumentos del arte mexicano antiguo. A. Asher, Berlin.

Seler, Eduard. 1904. Die Ausgrabungen am Orte des Hauptemels in Mexico. In Gesemmelte Abhandlungen zur Amerikanischen Sprach- und Alterthumskunde, vol. II, pp. 767-904. A. Asher & Co.,  Berlin.

Solis, Felipe. 2000. La Piedra del sol. Arqueología Mexicana, vol VII, no. 41: 32-39.

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

Taube, Karl. 2000. The Turquoise Hearth: Fire, Self Sacrifice, and the Central Mexican Cult of War. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, edited by D. Carasco, L. Jones and S. Sessions, pp. 269-340. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Townsend, Richard Fraser. 1979. State and Cosmos in the Art of Tenochtitlan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and    Archaeology, Number 20. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

Umberger, Emily. 1981. Aztec Sculptures, Hieroglyphs and History. Ph.D. Dissertation, Graduate School of Arts and ciences, Columbia University.

_____________. 1987. Events Commemorated by Date Plaques at the Templo Mayor: Further Thoughts on the Solar Metaphor. In The Aztec Templo Mayor, edited by E. H. Boone, pp. 411-451. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

_____________. 1988. A Reconsideration of Some Hieroglyphs on the Mexica Calendar Stone. In Smoke and Mist: Mesoamerican Studies in Memory of Thelma D. Sullivan, I:345-388. B.A.R, Oxford

Villela, Kristaan D., Matthew Robb and Mary Ellen Miller. 2010. Introduction. In The Aztec Calendar Stone, edited by Villela, Kristaan D. and Mary Ellen Miller, pp. 1-41. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.


Analyzing an Ancient Maya Codex Fragment from Uaxactun 1

Archaeologists seldom ever recover physical evidence of ancient Maya and Mesoamerican manuscripts. One notable exception was the discovery many decades ago of a badly fragmented codex in a tomb at Uaxactun, Guatemala, dating to the Early Classic period. Its remains were recently analyzed by Nicholas Carter and Jeffrey Dobereiner, who report their results in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity.

Multispectral imaging of an Early Classic Codex Fragment from Uaxactun, Guatemala 

by Nicholas P. Carter and Jeffrey Dobereiner

Antiquity, vol. 90, issue 351, pp. 711-725 (June 2016)

ABSTRACT: Multispectral visual analysis has revealed new information from scarce fragments of a pre- Columbian document excavated in 1932 from a burial at Uaxactun, in Guatemala. The plaster coating from decomposed bark- paper pages of an Early Classic (c. AD 400– 600) Maya codex bear figural painting and possibly writing. Direct investigation of these thin flakes of painted stucco identified two distinct layers of plaster painted with different designs, indicating that the pages had been resurfaced and repainted in antiquity. Such erasure and re-inscription has not previously been attested for early Maya manuscripts, and it sheds light on Early Classic Maya scribal practices.

Link to article here

An Innovative Ritual Cycle at Terminal Classic Ceibal 4

By Nicholas P. Carter, Harvard University

The site of Ceibal, in the southwestern Department of Petén, Guatemala, is well known for the exuberantly unconventional style and content of its Terminal Classic monuments. Among these, Stela 19 is especially interesting. The stela was erected in front of Structure A-5, on the east side of the South Plaza of Ceibal’s Group A (Figure 1). Group A was a major locus of royal construction activity during the Terminal Classic period, and the stela has long been understood to date to sometime in the ninth century A.D. Yet the precise date of the monument has proven difficult to establish because of damage to its inscription. This note proposes that the text alludes to the k’atun ending (May 5, A.D. 889), but that it does so using an innovative count of four thirteen-day periods following the period ending. This count appears in the context of other religious innovations at Ceibal, but it recalls earlier ritual cycles at other Classic sites commemorating and anticipating k’atun endings.

Figure 1. Group A at Ceibal, showing Structure A-5 at lower right. Map courtesy of Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona.

Figure 1. Group A at Ceibal, showing Structure A-5 at lower right. Map courtesy of Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona.

Figure 2. Ceibal Stela 19. Photograph by Linda Schele (103010), courtesy of the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

Figure 2. Ceibal Stela 19. Photograph by Linda Schele (103010), courtesy of the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

The front surface of Stela 19 (Figure 2) is carved with a relief portrait of a ruler scattering incense with one hand, a standard trope on Maya royal stelae. Unusually for such monuments, however, the celebrant’s face is covered with a mask depicting the duck-billed Wind God, and he wears a skirt of narrow cloth strips instead of the apron-like garment more typical for such scenes. The only text on the monument consists of eight glyph blocks, two high by four wide, in a panel below the ruler’s feet (Figure 3). All four of the leftmost glyph blocks contain dates with numeric coefficients of 1, while the four blocks to the right contain noncalendrical signs. However, the middle four blocks (positions B1, C1, B2, and C2) were effaced in antiquity, some of them almost completely (J. Graham 1990:57). This has contributed to confusion about the nature of the dates and the reading order of the text. J. Graham (1990:60) thought the signs at positions A1 and B1 comprised a Calendar Round date of 1 Ben 1 Pop, corresponding to a Long Count date of (January 9, A.D. 868). The implication would be that the text has to read from left to right in two rows of four glyph blocks, since one Calendar Round date immediately followed by a second such date (at A2 and B2) would be highly aberrant. Bryan Just (2004:27) placed the stela a little over thirty years later, around, on the basis of its style. Without committing to a specific date, Prudence Rice (2004:214) suggested that the inscription referred in some way to a half- or quarter-k’atun ending, indicated by the scattering of incense in the scene above.

Careful inspection of photographs by Ian Graham (I. Graham 1996:47) and Linda Schele (2005: photograph no. 103012) strongly suggests that the four leftmost glyph blocks contain tzolk’in dates exclusively, not full Calendar Round dates. The date 1 Ben at A1 is unmistakable. The date at B1 is not 1 Pop at all, but a tzolk’in date with a coefficient of 1; even though the interior details of the day name are destroyed, the contours of the cartouche are clear enough. The date at A2 is another well-preserved tzolk’in date, 1 Kawak. The date at B2 is destroyed except for traces of another numeral 1.

Figure 3. The inscription on Ceibal Stela 19. Drawing by the author after photograph by Linda Schele.

Figure 3. The inscription on Ceibal Stela 19. Drawing by the author after photograph by Linda Schele.

A set of four tzolk’in dates associated with calendrical rituals might suggest—at first—an ethnohistoric parallel with Maya celebrations of new haab years in the Calendar Round. Because each haab year has 365 days (eighteen months of twenty days, plus the five-day intercalary month of Wayeb at the end of the year), while there are twenty day names in the tzolk’in cycle, the first day of the haab year can only correspond to four tzolk’in day names, each five positions apart. Epigraphers call those tzolk’in positions Year Bearers because many Mesoamerican calendrical traditions use them to name haab years. For Late Postclassic Yucatec communities, the Year Bearers were Kan, Muluc, Ix, and Cauac. Diego de Landa recorded that “[i]n all the towns of Yucatan it was the custom to have at each of the four entrances to the town two heaps of stones, one in front of the other; that is, at the east, west, north, and south” (Landa 1978:62–67). Offerings to supernatural beings were made each year at one of the four stations, depending on which tzolk’in day would be the Year Bearer for the coming year: Kan corresponded to the southern altars, Muluc to the eastern, Ix to the northern, and Cauac to the western. Could Ceibal Stela 19 record similar rituals connected to the Year Bearers?

The two well-preserved tzolk’in dates on the monument, 1 Ben and 1 Cauac, indicate that it does not. While Cauac is one of the Postclassic Yucatec Year Bearers, Ben is not. The two day names are separated by six positions (counting from Ben to Cauac) or fourteen (counting from Cauac to Ben), whereas Year Bearers must be separated by multiples of five. Yet four dates, three of them definitely tzolk’in dates, all of them with coefficients of 1, and all so close to one another in the text, do point to a ritual pattern of some kind. If some of the dates are not Year Bearers, what could explain such a pattern?

Starting with the hypothesis that the stela dates to about the third k’atun ending of the tenth bak’tun, one possibility does suggest itself. Counting forward thirteen days from 1 Ahau 3 Yaxkin yields the date 1 Ben 16 Yaxkin. Thirteen days later is 1 Cimi 9 Mol, and thirteen days after that is 1 Cauac 2 Ch’en. If one further assumes that this inscription, like most others, reads in double vertical columns instead of in two horizontal rows, then the four glyphs at A1 through B2 can be reconstructed and connected to the k’atun ending. The elements in boldface below are preserved on the stela, while those in brackets are implied or reconstructed:

Carter table

The three surviving glyph blocks at the end of the text (D1, C2, and D2) all evidently contain nouns. D1 begins with the agentive pronoun AJ, “he of” or “one who,” followed by a direction, either OCH-K’IN (ochik’in, “west”) or EL-K’IN (elk’in, “east”), and then an eroded collocation. C2 contains the spelling PI’T-ta, pi’t (“palanquin”), and D2 consists of logographic K’UH. Conceivably, this “palanquin god” might have been one of the massive effigies carried on litters in war and ritual processions, illustrated, among other places, on late eighth-century wooden lintels at Tikal. Since the first four glyph blocks all contain dates, the verb can only have been in block C1. This is now totally effaced, but given the reference to a deity in blocks C2 and D2, it likely described a ritual of some kind.

A1 – B1: 1-BEN 1-[CIMI]
A2 – B2: 1-CAUAC 1-[EB]
C1 – D1: [ritual verb] AJ-?-K’IN-?-?-?K’UH
C2 – D2: ?-PI’T-ta K’UH
 juun ben, juun [?cham], juun ?chahuk, juun [eb], […] aj […] ?k’uh pi’t k’uh
On 1 Ben, 1 [Cimi], 1 Cauac, and 1 [Eb], [ritual verb] He of … God(?), Palanquin God.

On this view, the Stela 19 text records either four religious rituals that took place every thirteen days following the k’atun ending, or else a single rite that happened 52 days (4 × 13) after the k’atun ending. This proposed 52-day commemoration of a period ending is to the author’s knowledge unique in the hieroglyphic record, and appears to represent a Terminal Classic innovation local to Ceibal. The k’atun ending itself is recorded on three other monuments in Ceibal’s Group A—Stelae 3, 18, and 20—each of which varies in its own way from earlier Classic Maya standards for period ending stelae. Stela 3 was erected in front of the pyramidal Str. A-6, across the South Plaza from Str. A-5 (I. Graham 1996:17; Smith 1982:90). Its main figural panel depicts a ritual celebrant wearing a headscarf in place of the typical Principal Bird Deity headdress worn by most Classic Maya lords on k’atun-ending monuments. Below, gods of wind and music provide auditory accompaniment; above sit two rain gods whose wild hair, Tlaloc faces, and nominal square day signs (5 Alligator and 7 Alligator, both rendered in non-Maya style) may connect them to the peoples of coastal Veracruz. Stela 18, at the base of Str. A-20 in the Central Plaza, and Stela 20, at the base of the Str. A-24 stairway, both depict a lord wearing the “Toltec” warrior regalia common in Terminal Classic sculpture at Chichen Itza.

While the missing signs are unrecoverable, the proposals above have several points in their favor. The double-column reading order this analysis presumes is standard for Classic Maya monumental texts. The implicit reference to a k’atun ending makes sense of the incense-scattering in the scene above, just as Rice (2004:214) suggested, while the specific k’atun-ending date of is in line with Just’s (2004:27) stylistic date. All four tzolk’in dates must be separated by multiples of thirteen days because they share the same coefficient. In fact, the two fully preserved dates, 1 Ben and 1 Cauac, are 26 days apart—provided, as the reading order would suggest, that the latter date is the next 1 Cauac after 1 Ben.

Classic Maya ideas about numerology—inferred from representations of the cosmos, the properties of calendrical systems, and accounts of calendrical rites—provide a cultural context that makes sense of the proposed ritual cycle. The significance of the number thirteen is evident from the tzolk’in calendar, whose numeric component consists of a cycle of thirteen numbers. Thirteen periods of twenty days—the number of day names in the tzolk’in, and the number of days in one winal in the Long Count calendar—make 260 days, or the number of name-number combinations in the full tzolk’in cycle. The Maya identified four tzolk’in Year Bearer days, four aspects of the rain god Chahk, sets of four divine youths, and four cardinal directions associated with four sacred trees. Four cycles of thirteen days make 52 days, a number with its own esoteric resonance: positions in the Calendar Round, combining a tzolk’in date with a date in the ha’b calendar, recur once every 52 ha’b years.

While innovative in its reliance on thirteen-day periods, the proposed 52-day ritual cycle at Ceibal finds precedent in earlier texts from other Maya sites. Notable examples are the stelae erected by Copan ruler K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil in preparation for and commemoration of the three-quarters k’atun ending (November 11, A.D. 647) and the k’atun ending (October 15, A.D. 652). Here, the numbers 260 (13 × 20) and 40 take on particular importance. According to Stelae 2 and 12 at Copan, K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil celebrated the date with a pilgrimage to a place called Naah Kab—perhaps the hill just east of the Acropolis on which Stela 12 was erected—then returned to the same spot 260 days later, on, to conduct a second ritual. Fittingly, the full k’atun ending occasioned greater ceremony. Preparations may have begun with a rite on (October 21, A.D. 651), one 360-day Long Count year before the main event. 100 days later, on (that is, 260 days before the k’atun ending), the king celebrated a second ritual, commemorated on Stela 10 on a hill across the Copan Valley from Stela 12. On, 260 days after, he conducted another rite, also recorded on Stela 10. 40 days later, on, he performed still another ritual, this one involving an altar dedicated to the avian Sun God. 40 days after that, on the k’atun ending itself, the celebrations reached their climax with K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil’s dedication of stone monuments and invocation of Copan’s patron deities.

K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil emphasized intervals of 260 days because the tzolk’in calendar is 260 days long, so that a period ending in the Long Count would have the same date in the tzolk’in as the day 260 days before or after it. In Maya religious thought, the tzolk’in date of a day made it auspicious or unlucky, suitable for certain kinds of activities and not others, and days with the same tzolk’in date were in an esoteric sense the same day. Two of K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil’s monuments appear to refer to the yearly movements of the sun using a similar principle: as seen from Stela 12 on the east side of the Copan Valley, the sun would appear to set behind Stela 10 to the west about 20 days after the spring equinox and before the autumnal equinox (Morley 1920:143). The days on which those observations were made would thus have the same tzolk’in day name, though not the same number, as the days of the equinoxes themselves. A similar principle could be at work in the Ceibal Stela 19 cycle: sharing a numeric coefficient with 1 Ajaw, each of the four tzolk’in dates temporally echoes the k’atun ending.

Ceibal already stands out among Terminal Classic southern lowland Maya kingdoms for the long survival of its royal court and for that court’s ritual and representational innovations. Hitherto, those changing images and practices have been most evident in the site’s ninth-century portraiture and iconography. Most very late texts at Ceibal are limited to Calendar Round dates; although it is longer, the unconventional text on Stela 13 thus far defies secure interpretation. Stela 19 thus presents a unique window onto local ideas about numerology and the temporal echoes of important calendrical endings in the late ninth century. Those ideas themselves fit within an older intellectual tradition, to which the last kings of Ceibal made their own contribution.


The ideas presented above benefited from discussions with Thomas Garrison, Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, Katharine Lukach, Franco Rossi, Andrew Scherer, and David Stuart. Takeshi Inomata, David Schele, and the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies kindly provided illustrations, in the latter case a photograph.

Sources Cited

Graham, Ian. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 7.1: Seibal. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Graham, John A. 1990. Excavations at Seibal, Department of Petén, Guatemala: Monumental Sculpture and Hieroglyphic Inscriptions. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 17, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge.

Just, Bryan. 2007. Ninth-Century Stelae of Machaquila and Seibal. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Incorporated. <>

Landa, Diego de. 1978. Yucatan Before and After the Conquest. William Gates, trans. and ed. Dover Publications, New York.

Morley, Sylvanus Griswold. 1920. The Inscriptions at Copan, Honduras. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C.

Rice, Prudence M. 2004. Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Schele, Linda. 2005. The Linda Schele Photograph Collection. Accessed 7-29-2015. <;

Smith, A. Ledyard. 1982. Excavations at Seibal, Department of Petén, Guatemala: Major Architecture and Caches. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 15, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge.

Preliminary Notes on Two Recently Discovered Inscriptions from La Corona, Guatemala 10

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin), Marcello Canuto (Tulane University), Tomás Barrientos Quezada (Universidad del Valle de Guatemala), and Maxime Lamoureax St-Hillaire (Tulane University)

During the 2015 excavation season at La Corona, Guatemala, two new sculpted blocks were recovered in excavations of the site’s main palace overseen by one of the authors, Maxime Lamoueax St-Hilaire. Both blocks are parts of larger compositions that were removed from their original settings and re-set in a masonry wall near the northeast corner of the palace complex. The precise archaeological context of the discovery will be presented separately, and described in detailed at the upcoming SImposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala.

Each stone has been assigned an “Element” designation in accordance with the nomenclature system developed for La Corona’s corpus of sculpture (Stuart et. al. 2015). Each stone seems to be part of a larger panel or sculpted step, so it is important to note that their designations may be modified in the future to reflect new understandings of their original form and presentation.

Also, we should stress that the following commentary is itself preliminary. More formal and complete presentations will appear as part of the series La Corona Notes, and in subsequent publications sponsored by the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona, directed by Marcello Canuto and Tomás Barrientos Quezada.

Element 55

Element 55 shows a small intricately carved scene of a costumed ruler engaged in a dance performance. The date is the period ending 7 Ahau 3 Cumku, or January 20, 702 A.D. The accompanying hieroglyphs name the ruler as ? Ti’ K’awiil, a prominent king of Calakmul sometimes known in the literature as “Took K’awiil'” (a designation based on his variant name glyphs; see Martin and Grube 2000:112). This appears to be the left-half of a larger scene that would have presented another figure facing the dancer, in all likelihood a local La Corona ruler.

The main portion of the text (from B1 to D6) reads:

u baah ti ahk’ot ? ti’ k’awiil k’uhul kaanul ajaw elk’in(?) kaloomte’ ux te’ tuun

“(it is) his person in (the act of) dancing, ? Ti’ K’awiil, the Holy Kaanul Lord, the east Kaloomte’, (at) ux te’tuun.”

La Corona, Element 55. Preliminary drawing by Mary Kate Kelly. (Please do not re-publish without permission of the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).

La Corona, Element 55. Preliminary drawing by Mary Kate Kelly. (Please do not publish without permission of the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).


The inscription on the left side of the block gives the Calendar Round date 7 Ahau (A1) 3 Cumku (A4), along with Glyphs G9 (A2) and F (A3). This corresponds with the half-k’atun period ending falling on The verb phrase (B1) and the name and titles of the king (C1-D5) make up most of the rest of the text, ending in a place name uxte’tuun (Calakmul), indicating where the dance performance took place. The glyphs are very finely carved in a style reminiscent of Block V from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (the somewhat infamous “2012 block”). A certain scribal flair is evident in these hieroglyphs which display unusual head variant signs and ornate forms, such as the unusual “east” glyph (D4) displaying the head of the sun god K’inich Ajaw emerging from the open maw of an alligator.

The name of ? Ti' K'awiil from Dos Pilas Stela 8. Drawing by Ian Graham.

The name of ? Ti’ K’awiil from Dos Pilas Stela 8. Drawing by Ian Graham.

The Calakmul ruler depicted, ? Ti’ K’awiil (“Took’ K’awiil”) assumed the throne in 698, as revealed in two historical texts unearthed in 2012 (one at La Corona, another at El Peru) (Stuart et. al., 2014). He is named on several other monuments at Calakmul, and a particularly beautiful version of his name, similar to the one given here, occurs Stela 8 of Dos Pilas. The ruler’s dance on marked a special occasion in his life history, being the first major period ending of his reign.  He would live at least three more decades and be responsible for some of Calakmul’s most beautiful monuments, including those erected around Structure 1 on

Element 56

Element 56 is a all-glyphic block, probably the second part of a longer text with its first portion still missing. In format this partial inscription is very much like the “2012 block” discovered a few years ago in Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. It displays precisely the same grid dimensions as that block, in fact, and dates to just a few years before. Its style bears a strong resemblance to other texts known from La Corona dating to the end of the seventh century.

La Corona, Element 56. Preliminary drawing by David Stuart. (Please do not publish without permission of Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).

La Corona, Element 56. Preliminary drawing by David Stuart. (Please do not publish without permission of Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).

Summary of inscription:

The partial text recounts several important events involving the La Corona ruler named Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk, leading up to his accession in 689 and culminating in the dedication of an ancestral shrine for the new king’s deceased parents in 690.

The text emphasizes aspects of Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk’s political career, and especially close interactions with the king who reigned at Calakmul in those years, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. Some of the history mentioned on Element 56 describes ceremonial dressing and adornment, no doubt reflecting the complex process of royal investiture before Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy’s inauguration on September 9, 689. He returned to Saknikte’ two weeks later on September 23, to establish his new political presence, and shortly thereafter focused his attention on the construction of a shrine (wayib, “sleeping place”) for his father and mother, who died within a few months of each other over twenty years earlier, back in 667.

It is difficult to know what the missing first half of this inscription had to say, but we suspect it may have opened with a Long Count date 3 Ben 11 Zip and an accompanying record of the shrine dedication. It may also have had something to say about the end of the reign of Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk’s older brother, K’inch ? Yook, who is last heard from in 683.

We should mention that the name Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy refers to the same individual we have previously called Chak Ak’ach or Chak Ak’ach Yuk (“Red Turkey”). The new name reflects a revision based on clearer spellings in this new inscription (Houston, Stuart and Zender, in preparation).

Discussion, Dates and Episodes 9 Chicchan 13 Muan (December 7, 688) (missing)

The inscription opens in mid-passage, clearly indicating it was once part of a larger text. First glyph (pA1) is the place name SAK-NIK-TE’, for the local toponym of La Corona, Saknikte’, meaning “white blossom.” The date iassociated with this episode is missing but it can be reconstructed based on the time interval indicated afterward. The event is missing, but given what comes next it seems reasonable to suppose that this passage once recorded Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy’s departure from Saknikte’ as he heads off to Calakmul. 13 Muluc 17 Muan (December 11, 688) (pB3-pA4)

Four days later a new event takes place, written with the phrase pehkaj yichnal yuknoom yich’aak k’ahk’ kaloomte’ “he was summoned(??) before Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, the kaloomte’” (pB4-pA6). That is to say, the La Corona ruler has an important meeting and conference with Calakmul’s king. It is possible that his older brother K’inich ? Yook had recently passed away or otherwise been de-installed as ruler at La Corona, leading to the need for a face-to-face discussion.  6 Muluc 12 Ch’en (August 8, 689) (pA7-pB7)

Many months later we find Chak Ak Paat Kuy beginning an investiture rite, probably while he is still in Calakmul. The first of these events is recorded here, possibly taking place at dawn or sunset (a temporal adverb appears at pC1). The verb statement is unique, never seen before in any Maya text: po-tza-ja U-pa-ti, for pohtzaj u paat, possibly “his back is wrapped” (pD1-pC2). This happened under the watchful direction of the Calakmul king. We suspect that the La Corona nobleman was being given a ceremonial snake back-rack, much like the one we see depicted on Element 55. A similar costume is shown worn by his older brother K’inich ? Yook on La Corona’s Panel 1.  3 Cauac 2 Yax (August 15, 689) (pD3b-pC4a)

One week later Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy’s “say huun is tied (kahchaj).” We are not quite sure what a say huun is, but it probably is some paper-cloth adornment or accessory, possibly a type of headband or wristlet. Whatever it is, the same event is recorded as a pre-accession rite on Aguateca’s Stela 1 and also at Naranjo’s Stela 32. Here the spelling of the object is sa-HUUN, whereas elsewhere it is more fully sa-ya-HUUN.  6 Ik 5 Yax (August 18, 689) (pC5)

Three days later “he sets-up(?) at Ahktuun.” The phrase is somewhat enigmatic, but it may indicate the La Corona lord’s movement in or around Calakmul as he prepared for his upcoming accession ceremony, recorded in the next passage. The verb is the same one we often find associated with formal “foundation” events for royal courts at new locations. Ahktuun (literally “turtle-stone”) is the basis for a word for “cave” (often spelled actun in modern Yukatek), although here it may refer to an architectural or urban feature. The passage also cites the verb huli, “he arrived” in connection with an enigmatic place name (tz’i?-ni). 12 Imix 4 Zac (September 9, 689) (pD6b-pC7a)

Here we have the record of Chak Ak Paat Kuy’s accession as king. The episode mirrors an accession reference we have on La Corona, Stela 1, falling just one day earlier. The king’s name and title phrase is especially long, and includes elements not seen elsewhere (although his name on HS2, Block 5 shows a few parallel elements).  3 Etz’nab 1 Ceh (Septmeber 26, 689) (pF4-pE5)

Seventeen days later Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy finally seems to be back at La Corona. As the inscription here puts it very directly, ? t-u-hulil ti tax ajaw, “he ‘sets-up’ upon his arrival as the new king.”  8 Ahau 8 Uo (March 16, 692) (pG2-pH2)

In the last two columns we read how the “arrival” just cited took place 2.9.2 before 8 Ahau 8 Uo, “when will occur 13 k’atuns.” This is an anticpatorty record that establishes the events in relation to cosmic time, noting their proximity to the upcoming k’atun ending.

Closing passage of Element 56, noting the fire-entering ceremony at the parents' mortuary shrine (

Closing passage of Element 56, noting the fire-entering ceremony at the parents’ mortuary shrine (“sleeping place”). Photograph by David Stuart. 3 Ben 11 Zip (April 9, 690) (pH4-pG5)

The text closes with a stand-alone record of a major ceremony that occurred after the arrival and before the k’atun ending. This is och-k’ahk’ “fire-entering” – a dedication or activation rite at an architectural feature called “the three platform houses.” This almost certainly refers to a collection of structures atop the palace at La Corona. This is the designation of the “the wayib (shrine)” for Chak Nahb Chan and Lady Chak Tok Chahk, the mother and father of Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy and his elder brother and predecessor K’inich ? Yook.


Both stones are partial commemorations of important ceremonies. One is a visual record of a calendar dance ritual at far-off Calakmul, perhaps involving a local ruler as well. The other is a detailed textual record of a local nobleman’s transformation into a ruler under the close supervision of Calakmul’s powerful king, culminating in a ceremony honoring his beloved parents.

This note represents a preliminary analysis of two newly excavated sculptures from La Corona. More detailed analyses will appear in future issues of the La Corona Notes. More to come.

UPDATE: I would like to thank Jens Rohark for pointing out glaring inconsistencies in my initial conversions of the dates on Element 56. These have now  been corrected to reflect the Martin and Skidmore 584286 correlation.


Several colleagues have offered valuable thoughts and comments on these new finds, including Stephen Houston, Marc Zender and Simon Martin. Many thanks to them. The authors would also like to thank the Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala (IDAEH) and the Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes for their continued support in the excavation, conservation and analysis of the two sculptures presented here. We would also like to extend our appreciation to PACUNAM and to the National Geographic Society for their financial and logistical support of the Proyecto Arqueologico Regional La Corona (PARLC) in the 2015 season. The individual authors also acknowledge the help and assistance of their respective academic institutions, Tulane University, the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, and The University of Texas at Austin.


Houston, Stephen, David Stuart and Marc Zender. In preparation. The Reanalysis of a La Corona King’s Name. To appear in La Corona Notes.

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

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto and Tomas Barrientos Quezada. 2015. The Nomenclature of La Corona Sculpture. La Corona Notes, Number 2. Mesoweb.

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto, Tomás Barrientos, Jocelyne Ponce and Joanne Baron. 2015. Death of the Defeated. Historical Data on Block 4 of La Corona’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. La Corona Notes, Number 3.