Information Storage & the Classic Maya

by Stephen Houston, Charles Golden, and Andrew Scherer

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Table 1:  Ceramic boxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Dragons, Whales, and Wits’

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Karlštejn castle, in the Czech Republic, guards a curious relic: the skull of a Nile crocodile thought by its owner, Emperor Charles IV (1316–1378), to come from a dragon. Indeed, to Charles, this might have been the very monster slain by St. George (Pluskowski 2013:118–119). Charles was something of a mystic. In Karlštejn, he devised a “quasi-theatrical journey…interwoven with the progress of sacred time” (Crossley 2000:142). But he was not alone in seeing fantastic creatures behind this or that piece of bone or tissue from far away.

Think of fossils. They are like living animals and plants yet wholly unlike them, being of stone and, at times, strangely outsized. They lead readily to fabulous accounts, as in this one from Albrecht Durer: a “thigh bone alone measur[ing] five-and-a-half feet” must have belonged to a giant who once “ruled in Antwerp and performed great deeds; the city fathers wrote much about him in an old book” (Wood 2005:1148). The process of constructing “conjectural bestiaries” is more than an imaginative act (Houston 2010:75). Through tangible objects, to be treasured or gawked at, plainly to be seen, the most whimsical premise becomes real. A dragon skull testifies to a world of marvels, as does an enormous bone. And a belief in that world acquires an undeniable, material justification. What had started as a question—”what could this remnant belong to?—transforms into its own answer, a proof that a conjecture was right to begin with.


Perhaps the best example is the unicorn. An image from the Rochester Bestiary (c. AD 1250) shows the only way of killing this beast (Figure 1). Don your full covering of chain mail, invite the unicorn to cradle in the lap of a virgin, and then—quickly now!—kill it with repeated thrusts of a spear (Plusowski 2004:305). At least the creature died happy, to judge from its pleased expression. In the Middle Ages, the unicorn carried symbolic value by evoking the “invincibility and humility of Christ”; to paranoid rulers, its horn had a further benefit, in that it countered, or was believed to thwart, any poisons in drink (Plusowski 2004:305). By the later Medieval period, unicorn horns appeared in greater numbers. The Doges of Venice possessed two that had been looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, and a horn at Windsor formed part of the royal treasure sold by Oliver Cromwell after his victory in the English Civil Wars (Humphreys 1951:380). Others were made into objects for liturgical processions (Liverpool narwhal candlestick). In 1383, an ibex horn at the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham was inventoried as the talon of a griffin (Plusowski 2010:207, fig.. 9.6).

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Figure 1.  Rochester Bestiary, 13th century AD, f.10v (British Library)  Royal MS 12 F XIII.


By Cromwell’s time, a less beguiling certainty replaced mythic explanation. These objects were simply the tusks taken from narwhal (Monodon monoceros), toothed whales to be found cruising around the waters of Greenland. (The tusk itself, an elongated left upper incisor, grows up to 200 mm long, an inspiration to any fabulist far from that island.) The transport of horn in modest quantities to Europe followed the settlement of Greenland by Icelandic Vikings in the late 10th century AD (Plusowski 2004:297, 299, fig. 2). Confusion did not disappear entirely. As late as 1694, Pierre Pomet, chief druggist to Louis XIV of France, lumped it with other large “fish” and could not resist illustrating a rather equine “Unicorn of the Sea” (Licorne de Mer) alongside a more realistic narwhal (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Narwal and “Unicorn of the Sea” (Pomet 1694:78).

The Classic Maya may have had their own miraculous versions of dragon skulls and unicorn horns. The presence of shark teeth, including fossilized ones of the immense Carcharocles megalodon, is attested at an Olmec site like La Venta, but also, in Classic contexts, at Palenque, El Zotz, and elsewhere (see a valuable review in Newman 2016; also Borhegyi 1961; Cuevas García 2008:670; Martos López 2009:65; for fossils in Mexico and their earlier interpretation, Mayor 2013). It is likely that these were associated with creatures the artists may never have seen, some from presumed mythic or primordial settings.

Another example can be discerned. This is the canine of a feline, probably a jaguar, that had been drilled at about AD 500–550, its top shaped into the head of a deity (Franco 1968:21, lám. V; the dimensions are inferred from its published size, “[e]l dibujo es exactamente al tamaño natural”). A drawing and photographs of the object are reconfigured here so that the drawing is oriented properly—it is inverted in the monograph (Figure 3).

Figure 2.jpg
Figure 3. Drilled pendant, adult feline canine (jaguar?), “colección particular,” c. 9 cm high (Franco 1968:21, lám. V).

The iconographic attributes make two things clear. One is that this is the head of the serpent linked to sentient, almost volitional water, the witz’ snake that may well correspond to the later Chicchan of the Ch’orti’ Maya (Figure 4, Stuart 2007).

Figure 4. The tooth of the witz’ serpent (K1162, photograph by Justin Kerr, copyright Kerr Associates). 


Such creatures were impersonated by many lords and some ladies in the Classic period (for examples, although not identified as such, see Schele 1982:fig. 50). To judge from the Chicchan, the witz’ were beings tied to rain, springs and lakes, and, in their undulating, snake-like bodies, to the passage of water. More to the point, the pendant may have been regarded as the very tooth of that serpent or at least of one of them. Did the maker understand that it was a jaguar canine?  Such were uncommon but doubtless known, yet there was always the persuasive impact of imagination and a sheer wish to believe. Did its use as a pendant invoke the witz’ or show some dominion over it, even a heroic besting of the beast? The “serpent’s tooth” came from some unknown site, and these questions remain unanswerable. But the pendant does hint at wonders, powers, and fables that concern things of miraculous origin, as duly enhanced by humans.

Acknowledgements  Thanks go to David Stuart for conversations about this fascinating object.


Borhegyi, Stephan F. de. 1961. Shark Teeth, Stingray Spines, and Shark Fishing in Ancient Mexico and Central America. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 17(3): 273-296.

Crossley, Paul. 2000. The Politics of Presentation: The Architecture of Charles IV of Bohemia. In Courts and Regions in Medieval Europe, edited Sarah Rees Jones, Richard Marks, and A. J. Minnis, 99–172. York Medieval Press, York.

Cuevas García, Martha. 2008. Paisaje paleontológico en Palenque. In XXI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicos en Guatemala, 2007, edited by Juan Pedro Laporte, Bárbara Arroyo, and Héctor Mejía, 669–85. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala. Palenque fossils and sharks teeth

Franco C., José L. 1968. Objetos de hueso de la época precolombina. Cuadernos del Museo Nacional de Antropología 4. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historica, Mexico.

Houston, Stephen. 2010. Living Waters and Wondrous Beasts. In Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, Daniel Finamore and Stephen Houston, 66–79. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem (MA)/Yale University Press, New Haven.

Humphreys, Humphrey. 1951. The Horn of the Unicorn. Annals of The Royal College of Surgeons of England 8(5): 377–383. Humphreys unicorn

Martos López, L. Alberto. 2009. The Discovery of Plan de Ayutla, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 1, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 61–75. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco (CA).

Mayor, Adrienne. 2013. Fossil Legends of the First Americans. Rev. ed. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Newman, Sarah E. 2016. Sharks in the Jungle: Real and Imagined Sea Monsters of the Maya. Antiquity 90 (354): 1522–1536.

Pluskowski, Aleksander. 2004. Narwhals or Unicorns? Exotic Animals as Material Culture in Medieval Europe. European Journal of Archaeology 7(3): 291–313.

—. 2010. Constructing Exotic Animals and Environments in Late Medieval Britain. In The Unorthodox Imagination in Late Medieval Britain, edited by Sophie Page, 193–21. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

—. 2013. The Dragon’s Skull: How Can Zooarchaeologists Contribute to Our Understanding of Otherness in the Middle Ages? In Animals and Otherness in the Middle Ages: Perspectives Across Disciplines, edited by Francisco de Asís García García, Mónica Ann Walker Vadillo, and María V. Chico Picaza, 109–124. British Archaeological Reports International Series 2500. Archaeopress, Oxford.

Pomet, Pierre. 1694. Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, & des mineraux…  Loyson et Pillon, Paris. Pierre Pomet

Schele, Linda. 1982. Maya Glyphs: The Verbs. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stuart, David. 2007. Reading the Water Serpent as WITZ’. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Witz’ reading

Wood, Christopher S. 2005. Maximilian I as Archeologist. Renaissance Quarterly 58: 112874.

The Nomenclature of La Corona Sculpture

Right section of La Corona Panel 2. Photograph by Justin Kerr (K4677)

Right section of La Corona Panel 2. Photograph by Justin Kerr (K4677)

Just posted on Mesoweb is the latest in the series of La Corona Notes produced by the La Corona Archaeological Project (PRALC). This note, the second in the series, addresses the challenges in developing a logical designation system for site’s sculptures, many of which were looted from the site in the 1960s. Before La Corona’s identification in the 1990s, Peter Mathews had grouped these scattered blocks and panels and labeled their unknown source as “Site Q”.

The Nomenclature of La Corona Sculpture, by David Stuart, Marcello A. Canuto and Tomás Barrientos Q.

“Hieroglyphic Miscellany” from 1990 Reply

by David Stuart

Here’s a small item that I circulated to a few colleagues way back in 1990 called “Hieroglyphic Miscellany.” I hadn’t looked at this in many years, until I found it among some of my papers yesterday. I thought it might be of some interest to colleagues and students, so it here goes on Maya Decipherment. The somewhat random notes include a few tidbits:

(1) My first outline of the evidence for the so-called “doubler” mark in Maya script — the two small dots that indicate the repetition of a syllabic or logographic sign.

(2) Further development of the reading of the tza syllable.

(3) Notes on the deity names that appear on the Yaxchilan inscribed bones, described in another recent post here on Maya Decipherment. The idea that Yaxchilan’s Lintel 42 actually mentions these or similar bones seems far less likely today — that text rather contains a reference to the conjuring or manifesting of the same gods named on the bones.

(3) A brief presentation of the rationale behind the KAL decipherment for the “cauac-skull” logogram that appears in the title kaloomte’. At some point soon I would like to post a full discussion of the many variants and forms of kaloomte’ title, given how wonderfully complex it can be.

Hieroglyphic Miscellany 1990 (pdf file)


A Possible Sign for Metate 9

by David Stuart, Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin

The "Bent-Cauac" Sign

The “Bent-Cauac”

Among the still-undeciphered signs in Maya writing is the so-called  “bent-cauac” element (Figure 1). Most epigrpahers seem to agree that it is a logogram (a word sign), but its precise reading has so far remained elusive. In this note I would like to put forth some evidence that points to a possible reading KA’, with the meaning “metate” or “grinding stone.” The reading, if correct, may ultimately help us to understand a key place name cited in historical records of the Classic period.

Figure 2. The "maguey metate" place name. (a) TIK St 31, (b) COL La Florida(?) vessel, (c) COP St 4, (d) COL vessel K1882. Drawings by D. Stuart; K1882 Photo by J. Kerr.

Figure 2. The “chi-altar” place glyph. (a) TIK St 31, (b) COL La Florida(?) vessel, (c) COP St 4, (d) COL vessel K1882. Drawings by D. Stuart; K1882 photo by J. Kerr.

The bent-cauac sign is perhaps best known as part of an important place name in early Maya history, mentioned in the inscriptions from a number of different sites, including Copan, Tikal and Dzibanche. as well as depicted on a few codex-style ceramics (Grube 2004) (Figure 2). Here it is combined with the hand sign chi, which some years ago led to the nickname “chi-witz” (Grube 2004:127) apparently based on the bent-cauac’s imperfect resemblance to the WITZ, “mountain,” logogram identified a number of years ago (Stuart 1987). Clearly it is a different sign, however.[Note 1] More recently, some epigraphers have opted to refer to the place name as “chi-altar,” seeing a connection instead to the large table-like altars sometimes depicted in Maya sculpture and painting (see for example Stone and Zender 2012:93). This visual connection to a stone object seems closer to the mark, yet I believe the “altar” designation remains vague and even problematic. One reason for my hesitance is the distinctive and consistent bent form of the sign’s main element — something altogether different from the flat altar stones with two supports. Moreover, a hieroglyphic sign that actually does depict such stone altars or tables already exists in the texts of Tikal and Copan. Significantly, one inscription at Tikal includes both the the “bent-cauac” and “stone table” signs, easily demonstrating the distinction of the two elements (See Tikal Stela 26, blocks zA7 and yB2). Thus there is good reason to see the bent-cauac as neither a hill nor an altar, but representing some other type of stone object or feature.

Figure 3. Corn-grinding scene on K1272 (Photograph by J. Kerr).

Figure 3. Corn-grinding scene on K1272 (J. Kerr photo).

If we look at the bent-cauac’s visual history, we see that the sign changes somewhat over time. Its earliest known cases show two small stone elements below the larger bent sign (Figure 2a). Later scribes usually opted to place small stones at the upper left and lower right corners of the sign (Figure 1, Figure 2c, Figure 4), lending the sign  aesthetic and visual balance.  In some instances, the smaller stone elements are omitted altogether (Figure 2b).  In the iconographic parallels from codex-style vases, we see that the original early form is retained, showing an irregular, sloped large stone atop two supports (Figure 2d).

In considering what the bent-cauac sign really depicts, we can be sure of a couple of things. One, it is a stone object of irregular shape, sloping downward on one end. Second, it can have “supports” of stone, but not always. What might it be? I suggest that it probably represents a metate, or a grinding stone — an identification that seems to agree well with the depictions of such objects in Maya art (Figure 3).  In the fuller examples of bent-cauac logogram (see Figure 1), the placement of a stone on top may allude to the hand-held “mano,” with the other stone serving as a support beneath.

FIgure 4. Example of the -a suffix on the bent-cauac

Figure 4. Example of the -a suffix on the bent-cauac

Some phonetic evidence may help determine the sign’s value.  In various instances we see the bent-cauac sign with an -a suffix (Figure 2c, Figure 4). This is a sign that in its origin represented a parrot’s beak, abbreviating the fuller parrot head sign also a, also seen conflated with the metate glyph in cases from the Hieroglyphic Stairway at the site of Resbalon. In this context the –a suffix sign can be taken in a couple of ways. The –a element might conceivably be providing the common place name ending  –(h)a’, “water,” as it clearly seems to do in the Yaxha toponym and emblem glyph (YAX-a) (Stuart 1988). Alternatively, the –a may provide a telling phonetic clue to the reading of the logogram, serving as a phonetic complement.

I prefer this second possibility, since it seems to be an optional sign added onto the metate sign in at least two separate contexts.  If the -a is indeed optional, there is a good likelihood that it serves a phonetic complement to the reading of the metate logogram.  In this light, it is interesting to see the various terms for metate in lowland Mayan languages, as listed by Kaufman in his Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary (Kaufman 2003).  There the form reconstructed for proto-Mayan is *ka’, and for Proto-Ch’olan it is *cha’.  I therefore suggest this may be a good working decipherment for the bent cauac sign, either KA’ or CHA’, “metate.”

Metates were, of course, basic implements in domestic food production used throughout the ancient Americas. In Mesoamerica we usually think of stone grinders being used for processing maize, but they were key implements in many different types of food preparation. Interestingly, metates were used for the grinding of maguey and other agave plants in the manufacture of mescal, pulque and perhaps other fermented drinks important in Mesoamerica.  

We might now have a reasonable interpretation of the mysterious place glyph once called “chi-witz.” If I were to propose a phonetic analysis of the compound, something like chi-CHA’ (chi(h) cha’) or chi-KA’ (chi(h) ka’), the “maguey grinder (place),” looks like a workable possibility.

It is important to stress that the geographic frame of reference for this “maguey-grinder” place name still remains very unclear. Some have argued that it might refer to El Mirador or Nakbe, given its early historical connections (see Grube 2004:13-131; Zender and Stone 2012:234). While such connections are tantalizing they still remain circumstantial, and without further evidence it is difficult to know. Perhaps this better semantic understanding of the place name will help us one day in resolving the issue.

It is also important to note that not all appearances of the supposed metate sign are easily understood, even if KA’ or CHA’ turns out to be a correct reading. On Tikal Stela 26 the sign appears in what might be a verbal context (U-KA’-ji) but the surrounding text is obscure. Hopefully these and other issues can be clarified with further analysis.


Thanks to Stephen Houston, Simon Martin and Karl Taube for some very useful feedback on this proposal.


Note 1. Part of the confusion seems to have stemmed from an example from Stela 1 at Arroyo de Piedra (see Grube 2004:130), where the sculptor of the monument bears the title CHIH-WITZ AJAW, “Deer-Mountain Lord.” There is no reason to connect this isolated example of the “Deer Mountain” place name to the “chi-witz” or “chi-altar” glyphs under discussion here, however.

Note 2. The difference in these two readings rests on whether one prefers to transcribe the sign using the reconstructed Ch’olan-Tzeltalan form cha’, or the more “archaic” ka’.  Until recently I would have opted strongly for the latter, given the secure position of Classic Mayan language in the Ch’olan-Tzeltalan group. But it is important to point out that many glyphic spellings point to a more complex scenario of areal diffusion of the k > ch sound change, and that the supposed innovation is not as regular as was earlier assumed (Law, et. al., in press). Until further clarification comes about, KA’ or CHA’ seem equally plausible readings.


Grube, Nikolai. 2004. El origin de la dinastia Kaan. In Los Cautivos de Dzibanche, edited by Enrique Nalda, pp. 117-132. INAH, Mexico D.F.

Kaufman, Terrence. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. On-line resource at

Law, Danny, John Robertson, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, David Stuart. In press. Areal Shifts in Maya Phonology. Ms. accepted for publication in Ancient Mesoamerica.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2012. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Stuart, David. 1985. The Yaxha Emblem Glyph as YAX-A. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, 1. The Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

_________. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, 14. The Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.