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 V (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).

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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).

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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.

References

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 Universe in a Maya Plate 1

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

Expressing metaphors for a constantly shifting reality is a human universal, especially during the mid-8th century AD. At that time, in the center of the Yucatan peninsula, royal courts were on the cusp of political and demographic upheaval. Yet, in a signal irony—and perhaps as a cause?—they managed to sponsor innovative architectural and artistic programs. Consider the vase painters in and around Calakmul, Campeche, at c. AD 750.

The sheer volume of codex-style vessels, produced within a very few generations, suggest that ateliers were scaling up production for the struggling royal court and assertive sub-royals in sites nearby. Lack of archaeological context and legible texts impedes deeper understanding of the circumstances under which such paintings were produced (but see Delvendahl 2008:125-128; García Barrios 2011). A suggestive comparison, though, could be made with the proliferation of lintels and panels in the Usumacinta region within the Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras kingdoms: that is, art was distributed in exchange for loyalty and tribute when such had become, perhaps, more precarious (Martin and Grube 2008:135-137, 153).

Only slightly more than 20 painters are identified by name in the Classic period, far fewer than the ca. 120 sculptors who signed works in stone (Houston 2016; Houston, Stuart, and Fash 2014; Stuart 1987, 1989). Recent studies have traced the oeuvres of individual vase painters in specific temporal contexts (see Just 2012). Without scribal signatures, however, researchers are left to the detailed study of the “hands” of Classic Maya artists. This is an evaluation that rests on habitual, “unconscious” details, as pioneered by Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, and others for Renaissance masters such as Raphael, or by John Beazley for Classical Greek painters (See Beazley 1911, 1946; Berenson 1901, 1903; Morelli 1900; Wollheim 1974). Such work could be tedious to an extreme, and highly subjective. Morelli himself, founder of such studies, admitted that it required “long practice” and that each eye might see different patterns.

Certain Maya painting styles nevertheless lend themselves to identifying artists’ hands. The limited number of variables and limited palette within the corpus of codex-style painting facilitate that search. This opportunity was recognized by Justin and Barbara Kerr in the early years of their valuable and innovative documentation of Maya ceramics (Kerr and Kerr 1988). The Kerrs proposed the existence of several codex-style masters on the basis of details revealed through close study of brush flourishes or the execution of hands, feet, and other minutiae. We were recently invited by Mary Miller to honor Justin Kerr at a special session in the 2017 College Art Association meeting and decided to revisit this important contribution.

The presentation coincided with the publication of an article celebrating codex-style vessels in the recent Metropolitan Museum Journal, Creation Narratives on Ancient Maya Codex-Style Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum, and a concurrent Maya codex-style installation at The Met. All depict the Classic Maya rain god, Chahk, in typical codex style. Red bands and black calligraphic line fill a cream or light beige background. Washes embellish figures, fluids, and the hieroglyphic texts that accompany them. In this genre, undulating shapes tend to dominate, along with a decided abhorrence of straight lines. Michael Coe called this “whiplash” calligraphy, endowed with lines that seem to curve and “snap” with vigorous energy (Coe 1973:91). New rollout photos, inspired by the Kerrs’ original work, include a hi-res image of the Metropolitan Vase and its visual narrative pertaining to the birth of a mythological infant jaguar deity. This vessel anchored one of the groups identified by the Kerrs, who identified a workshop controlled by a painter they dubbed the “Metropolitan Master.”

One codex-style masterwork not included in the Kerr’s original study was the unusually large tripod plate studied by Linda Schele and Mary Miller in their landmark exhibition, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Nicknamed the “Cosmic Plate” for its dense imagery, cosmogonic themes, and fineness of execution, it is a unique work, with few peers in terms of size, ambition, and care of painting (Figure 1, for a close competitor in quality, see, however, see Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII). In producing a new line drawing of the plate’s great Chahk representation from Justin Kerr’s photos, Doyle quickly realized that advances in knowledge allowed for a fresh study of this masterpiece.

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Fig. 1  Tripod plate showing Chahk as the great progenitor, 7th–8th century AD. Guatemala or Mexico, Maya, Late Classic. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, Diam. approx. 16 1/2 in. (42 cm). Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

The monumental plate is an object made for display, likely at feasting occasions in the royal court (in fact, few known Maya plates are so large—one example, impressive in size yet smaller than the “Cosmic Plate,” is a 31 cm-diameter Hutzijan polychrome plate excavated in Structure C-10 at Piedras Negras, see Muñoz 2004:103). A plate like this one could have been a grand diplomatic gesture, a gift between Maya rulers. The codex style is clearly a hallmark of the royal courts and loyal local palaces around the great city of Calakmul, straddling the border between southern Campeche and northern Guatemala (see Hansen et al. 1991; Reents-Budet et al. 2010). In our view, two potential models might explain the circulation of codex-style vessels: (1) non-royal political leaders commissioned them; or, more likely, (2) the most exquisite and elaborate were bestowed by the rulers of Calakmul itself. Perhaps local lords received handsome presents in return for their loyalty, through low-cost rewards distributed by the center. After all, a painted pot reveals deep training, but its making demanded only negligible expense in materials, time, and fuel for firing. Recall the high value that scholars had long-assumed for certain Athenian ceramics. In a provocative argument, Michael Vickers and David Gill (1994) suggested that this was a latter-day projection, one inconsistent with an actual, ancient emphasis on vessels of precious metals.

On the Cosmic Plate, the outer walls of its sloping rim are boldly painted with watery motifs, visible from afar, that include swirls, registers of droplets, and waterlily vegetation (Figure 2). The delicate main scene on the upper surface, however, would only have been visible by those directly above the plate at close range. The potter and painter collaborated on a clever conceit. The three feet of the vessel imitate downpours, a vertical deluge of concentrated form—these occur routinely in the Yucatan peninsula. In this case, columns of rain appear to precipitate from the plate itself and the watery milieu on its exterior.

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Fig. 2. Detail of the outside of the tripod plate and supports. Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

Traits on the Chahk plate—including the form of certain common motifs, the singular aspects of its composition, and the virtuoso brushwork over the large surface—distinguish it from almost all other Maya ceramic paintings. Some have argued that three vessels in the Princeton University Art Museum come from the same hand, executed by the painter ?-n Buluch? Laj, and painted around AD 755 (Robiscek and Hales 1983:249; see Just 2012). Indeed, the portrayal of a jaguar on the largest of those vessels invites close comparison with the howling jaguar growing from Chahk’s head. But the hypothesis that ?-n Buluch? Laj also painted the great Chahk plate raises a number of questions about painterly practice.

Maya vase painters appear to have experimented with different styles. The Princeton vases were likely commissioned by a Peten Itza king in north-central Guatemala. Hypothetically, the Cosmic Plate either came from there or from Calakmul, although still influenced by exemplary works to the south. The renowned “Altar vase,” clearly from the Ik’ kingdom near Peten Itza, proves that such pots traveled far and wide (Just 2012:142-149). Another source of inspiration might have been circulating books or paintings. Imperial China is known to have had such exchange, and scrolls gained uniformity, often over vast areas, by their energetic dispersion, study, and copying (see Miller 1998:216-218).

Whether the plate is the lone known work of a master or not, its unrecorded artist certainly fused the mythic and the historical in microcosmic form. The mythic frame of the narrative describes the context of the sprouting Chahk in deep time and in linked primordial locations. The fictive date of 13 Ok 8 Zotz must be significant to wider Maya myths: that Calendar Round appears in the Dresden Codex, in reference to the planet Venus, a point recognized by David Stuart (Miller and Schele 1986:310-312, pl. 122). Three Venus signs as well as the frontal and rear parts of the body of the celestial “starry Deer Crocodile” appear on either side of the upper scene, signifying the sky as the upper part of the composition (Martin 2015; Velásquez García 2006:Fig. 5). A celestial bird carries what appears to be the month name, 4 Ceh.

On the 13 Ok 8 Zotz date, an event “happened” (utiiy). This form of the verb has been suggested by David Stuart (personal communication, 1992) to refer to actions in remote time. The ancient subject seems to be k’uhul jinaj ? or “sacred milpa/planted-maize water,” perhaps a reference to the sprouting of maize, as part of a phrase consistent with the overall theme of emerging vegetation (Figure 3).

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Fig. 3. Hieroglyphic text describing events in mythological time and the four god names.

The scribe went on to describe the mythological setting in triplet form: it “happened” (utiiy, this time in a more conventional, syllabic spelling) “at the black cenote, at the black water, at the five-flower house (?).” The agents at the event in deep time are probably described as the four gods of matawil (4 ma-ta-K’UH), which could be a reference to a watery paradise (Stuart and Stuart 2008: 211-215). The gods are named as a feline or jaguar (hi-HIX)—he appears here, roaring, head-back—we suspect (the text is eroded), the presence of two other gods in addition to the Chak-Xib-Chahk at the center (Stuart was the first to identify this version of Chahk—others are known in the Dresden Codex and at Itzan, among other places; the connection to “red,” Chak, may be purely coloristic or refer to a direction, East). The text accords with visual clues to that toponymy. The centipede’s jaws, in a reference to the black cenote, frame Chahk’s watery emergence from a heavy register marked with the same hieroglyph for black water. There might also be a specific seasonal aspect to the scene, found in the single glyph blocks that flank the jaguar. These are variants of Wind God and sun-related glyphs, similar to the two glyphs born by characters in the Lamb panel from “Laxtunich” (Schele 1990:2).

Chahk is the undisputed protagonist as he rises waist-deep from the “black water.” He takes the form of an active, dancing character, perhaps a releaser of vegetation, and is shown in other depictions poised to chop with his axe. He wears his characteristic Spondylus earspools and holds the lightning axe symbolic of K’awiil. The main image of the scene is the branching head and left arm of the rain deity, with many sprouting beings (Figure 4). These include the large serpent to the left, the jaguar mentioned above, and a large “jester god” in the upper right that is recognizable by its crossed-bands motif. Th text is eroded and its details uncertain, but some of these could correspond the four gods of matawil mentioned in the text, including Chahk himself. Moreover, to lower right, that god’s left hand sprouts a personified version of obsidian. The branching Chahk with the other gods of matawil cue, as Karl Taube has suggested to us, the fractal forms of eccentric flints or obsidians. The overall being is both “hard” and “soft” in its asserted texture, material, and surface.

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Fig. 4. Drawing of a detail of the plate by James Doyle.

The hieroglyphic text contains a disjuncture. The jump separates mythical events and deity protagonists from a likely historical frame of reference and a human owner (Figure 5). The damaged day sign probably carries the coefficient 12, and the Pohp month may be prefaced by a variant of the number 6, identified long ago at Palenque by David Stuart. Though pinning down the date is speculative, style and proximity to major period endings suggests the following possibilities:

9.12.19.16.18             12 Etz’nab     6 Pohp             Feb. 26           AD 692

9.14.19.8.13               12 Ben            6 Pohp              Feb. 17           AD 731

9.16.5.15.3                 12 Ak’bal       6 Pohp              Feb. 10           AD 757

9.16.19.0.8                12 Lamat        6 Pohp              Feb. 7            AD 770

We find the latter two dates more likely, given the available evidence for the temporal distribution of codex-style ceramics, and the possible connection to the Ik’ painters who were active in the 750s-780s. The misalignment and asymmetry in the two sets of glyph blocks underscore the textual split between ancient time and contemporary events.

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Fig. 5. Historical Text.

The action that follows the date is likely a variant of the verb for ceremonial “raising” of a jawte’, plate (not “death,” as posited by Schele). The execution of the dedication verb on the plate is coincidentally very similar to that on the vessel in the Princeton museum and another cup likely by the same painter from the Ik’ polity, the first dated to approximately AD 755 (9.16.3.13.14  4 Hix 12 Kumk’u). The name and title that follow almost certainly name an actual historic figure (la-ch’a-TUUN-ni si-k’u-AJAW), though this name does not seem to be attested elsewhere in the corpus of Maya writing.

The plate with the mythic scene thus belonged to a living, historical owner who carried the ajaw title. Presumably, maize tamales filled the plate during important meals. By another, clever conceit, the plate would have contained actual maize products atop a scene in which growth is shown at first emergence. The reference to the mythological creation of maize and the depiction of this watery Olympus of quadripartite gods of matawil is indeed cosmic, but with a terrestrial focus. See, for example, the three partially preserved figures between the black water band and the potential representation of the “five-flower house” below (Figure 6).

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Fig. 6. Detail of personified plants: (left) “root” figure, possibly manioc or sweet potato (note sign for “darkness,” a feature first discerned by Marc Zender); (center) dancing Maize God with elongated cranium and breath bead; (right) “tobacco” figure (note sign for “darkness” on body of figure, a possible reference to nocturnal conditions or even a plant disease such as black shank?).

Accompanying the leafy plants is another upside-down figure on the left projecting downward from the water register. The scribe depicted this figure’s headdress as something close to the wi syllable, identifiable as a pan-Lowland word for “raíz, root,” in languages such as Ch’ol, Chontal, and Ch’orti’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:126). This could refer to a type of indigenous root crop, such as sweet potato or manioc, the latter extensively documented as a staple in places like Joya de Cerén, El Salvador (Sheets et al. 2012). If so, this character may constitute a unique depiction of root crops in Maya art. Much like the vegetation around Pakal’s sarcophagus, these beings correspond to plants of economic import to the Maya, and to key elements of consumption.

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Fig. 7. Comparison of wi syllable from Chahk plate and Palenque’s Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.

The deeper meaning of the plate thus comes into crisp focus. The object would have existed in two time frames, offering both real food and mythic food stuffs. In deep time, lightning and rain came together under the auspices of Venus and stars, at a location in or near the black cenote/black water place, calling together a dream-team of four deities. Chahk, as the central figure from which the other gods are sprouting, wields his axe to strike and release primordial vegetation: root crops, maize, and tobacco, in the form of godly figures. Fast forwarding to the 8th century, one can imagine a recitation by someone seated next to the plate. At a sumptuous feast, he or she would read the image and text and recount distant (yet close!) mythological events. The owner perhaps entreated the very deities pictured within, in earnest hopes for bountiful crops and plentiful rains in a time of impending social upheaval.

Acknowledgments

This post is dedicated to Justin Kerr, who built a life with his wife Barbara devoted to the study and preservation of Maya artworks. Mary Miller kindly invited us to the CAA meeting, where we had fruitful conversations with her, Claudia Brittenham, Bryan Just, Megan O’Neil, and Justin himself. Simon Martin and David Stuart also provided useful and timely comment.

References

Beazley, John D. 1911. The Master of the Berlin Amphora. Journal of Hellenic Studies 31: 276–295.

— 1946. Potter and Painter in Ancient Athens. London, Cumberlege.

Berenson, Bernard. 1901. The Study and Criticism of Italian Art. London, Bell and Sons.

— 1903. The Drawings of the Florentine Painters Classified, Criticised and Studied as Documents in the History and Appreciation of Tuscan Art, with a Copious Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols., London, J. Murray.

Coe, Michael D. 1973. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York, Grolier Club.

Coe, Michael D., and Stephen Houston. 2015. The Maya, ninth edition. London and New York, Thames & Hudson.

Delvendahl, Kai. 2008. Calakmul in Sight: History and Archaeology of an Ancient Maya City. Merida, Mexico: Unas Letras Industria Editorial.

García Barrios, Ana. 2011. Análisis iconográfico preliminar de fragmentos de las vasijas estilo codice procedentes de Calakmul. Estudios de la Cultura Maya 37:67­–97.

Hansen, Richard, Ronald L. Bishop, and Federico Fahsen. 1991. Notes on Maya Codex-Style Ceramics from Nakbe, Peten, Guatemala” Ancient Mesoamerica 2(2): 225–43.

Houston, Stephen. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy Lynne Costin, pp. 391–431. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Houston, Stephen, Barbara Fash, and David Stuart. 2015. Morelli and the Maya on the Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. Vol. 65/66, pp. 15-36.

Just, Bryan. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum.

Kaufman, Terrence, and William M. Norman. 1984. An outline of Proto-Cholan phonology, morphology and vocabulary. In Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, Institute for Mesoamerican Studies publ. 9, ed. by John. S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, pp. 77–166. Albany, State University of New York.

Kerr, Justin, and Barbara Kerr. 1988. Some Observations on Maya Vase Painters. In Maya Iconography, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson and Gillett G. Griffin, pp. 236–59. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens. London and New York, Thames & Hudson.

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

Miller, Mary Ellen, and Linda Schele. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum.

Miller, Mary. 1998. A Design for Meaning in Maya Architecture. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 187-222. Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks.

Morelli, Giovanni. 1900. Italian Painters: Critical Studies of Their Works, vol. 1, The Borghese and Doria-Pamphili Galleries in Rome, trans. Constance Jocelyn Ffoulkes. London, J. Murray.

Muñoz, Arturo René. 2004. The Ceramic Sequence of Piedras Negras, Guatemala: Type and Varieties. FAMSI http://www.famsi.org/reports/02055/index.html

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Sylviane Bouche le Landais, Ronald L. Bishop, and M. James Blackman. 2010. Codex-Style Ceramics: New Data Concerning Patterns of Production and Distribution. Paper presented at the XXIV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala.

Schele, Linda. 1990. The Site R Panels. http://www.mayavase.com/siterpanel.pdf

Sheets, Payson, David Lentz, Dolores Piperno, John Jones, Christine Dixon, George Maloof, and Angela Hood. 2012. Ancient Manioc Agriculture South of the Ceren Village, El Salvador. Latin American Antiquity 23(3): 259-81.

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

— 1989. Hieroglyphs on Maya Vessels. In The Maya Vase Book, A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, vol. 1, edited by Justin Kerr, pp. 149–160. New York, Kerr Associates.

Stuart, David, and George Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. London and New York, Thames & Hudson.

Vickers, Michael, and David Gill. 1994. Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery. Oxford, Clarendon Press. 

Wollheim, Richard. 1974. Giovanni Morelli and the Origins of Scientific Connoisseurship, in On Art and the Mind: Essays and Lectures, pp. 177–201. London, Allen Lane.

“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)

HM1990coversheet

US Premiere of Dance of the Maize God Reply

The 2014 Maya Meetings in Antigua saw a preview of the extraordinary new documentary film from Night Fire Films, Dance of the Maize God. The US Premiere will take place this coming Sunday, February 23, at 4 PM at CineFestival in San Antonio, Texas.

An announcement from Night Fire Films:

Night Fire Films is pleased to announce their new feature length documentary, Dance of the Maize God. Like their award-winning 2008 documentary Breaking the Maya Code, the new film explores the loss and recovery of ancient Maya culture – in this case, how royal painted vases, almost all found by looters, have transformed our understanding of the ancient Maya. The film explores the complex issues surrounding the excavation, study and exhibition of ancient Maya art.

Following a sneak preview at the UT Maya Meetings in Antigua, the film will have its U.S. premiere at the CineFestival in San Antonio this Sunday, February 23rd. In March, it will be featured at the Tulane Maya Symposium and at the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal.

To read more about the film, view a trailer and see the latest screening schedule, please go to: http://nightfirefilms.org/films/dance-of-the-maize-god/

The filmmakers will be traveling throughout 2014 to screen Dance of the Maize God at festivals, symposia, museums, universities and community organizations. We are hoping to accompany these screenings with panel discussions involving a wide range of viewpoints on the study and exhibition of looted art.

If your organization would be interested in exploring the possibility of a screening, please get in touch with Producer Rosey Guthrie at guthrie@nightfirefilms.org.

REPORT: Two Inscribed Bones from Yaxchilan 5

Back in 1979, excavations at Yaxchilan overseen by Roberto García Moll unearthed several carved bone objects within Tomb 2 of Structure 23 (Mathews 1997:161; Perez Campa 1990:150). Among them were the two artifacts in the figure below, each with a carved deity head on one end and a short hieroglyphic inscription (there were other similar bones as well, not treated here). In this report I would like to offer a few observations on the short texts, focusing mainly on the relationship they bear to the deity images.

As one can see in the drawings, these intriguing bones are pointed at one end, which might lead one to think they functioned as ritual bloodletters. I’m not so sure this is the case here, given their blunt appearance. It’s possible that they were pin-like devices inserted in some sort of unknown material, not unlike similar objects recently described by Martin (2012:77) in the paintings of Structure Sub 1-4 at Calakmul. Unfortunately the texts do not say exactly what they were used for — as we will see, one is simply a “jaguar bone” (Bone 1) and the other is an “offering bone” (Bone 2).

Each text is structured somewhat differently, but both clearly label the objects as belonging to Ix K’abal Xook, the noted queen of Yaxchilan from the early eighth century who is depicted on a number of sculptures at the site, including the famous carved door lintels of Structure 23 (Lintels 24, 25 and 26). Each text also includes a god’s name corresponding to the carved head, placed differently in each case.

YAX bones1BONE 1:

A1-A5:
u-ba ke-le BAHLAM-ma IX (k’a-ba)-la
u baakel bahlam Ix K’abal
(it is) the jaguar’s bone of Lady K’abal

B1-B3:
XOOK?-ki AJ-K’AHK’ o?-CHAHK-ki
Xook / Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk
Xook. (It is) Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk.

BONE 2:

A1-A3:
to-k’a-la AJAW-wa U-MAY-ya-ji
took’al ajaw u mayij
Flint Lord is the offering

B1-B3:
ba-ki IX-(k’a-ba)-la XOOK?-ki
baak Ix K’abal Xook
bone of Lady K’abal Xook.

The text on Bone 1 (a provisional designation, by the way) looks to have two segments. One is a name-tag based on the interesting term u baakel bahlam, “her jaguar bone…,” with he name of the owner, Lady K’abal Xook, continuing to glyph B1 on the obverse side. Glyphs B2 and B3, larger in size than the others, seem to stand apart as a separate name. This is familiar from a number of other texts as Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk, an important royal patron deity of Yaxchilan. The small head atop Bone 1 does indeed resemble as aspect of Chahk, the storm god, with a possible pointed diadem and and rope pectoral.

Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk was a local deity, named and depicted only at Yaxchilan and environs. I suspect he was the principle patron of the royal throne of Yaxchilan, not unlike GI was for Palenque, given his central role in the rhetoric of royal accession at the site (as on Lintel 25 and 35, among others). The first part of his name, Aj K’ahk’,  means “He of Fire,” although this title doesn’t always seem to be present. The core portion of the name simply seems to be O’ Chahk (and, no, there is no evidence he was Irish). O’ is the name of a raptorial bird whose image appears in the glyphs as the head sign with the values o (a syllable) or O’ (a logogram); this head sign is usually simply abbreviated as the spotted feather, so that in these deity names we seem to have the sequence O’-CHAHK-(ki) (see Figure 2a and 2b, below).  The O’ Chahk name corresponds to the headdress worn by Yaxchilan’s rulers during important dedication ceremonies, as shown in Figure 2a. Here the o’ bird is stacked atop the head of Chahk, essentially replicating the hieroglyphic name O’-CHAHK in iconographic form.

O Chahk

Figure 2. (a) The deity O’ Chahk as a headdress, from La Pasadita, Lintel 1. (b) the name Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 25, (c) The name O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 35. (Drawings by Ian Graham)

Bone 2 references a different god named Took’al Ajaw, “Flint-knife Lord,” who thus far has gone unrecognized. The inscribed statement is a bit more direct about the identity of the object, saying that “Took’al Ajaw is her offering bone.” Atop the bone we see a god resembling the so-called “Jaguar God of the Underworld,” with a long beard-like feature as well as a pointed, animated flint knife for a forehead — hence his name.  This deity is also of local importance at Yaxchilan. Several portraits of him can be fount at the tops of stelae that depict consecration rites on important Period Endings and anniversaries, where he is always shown above a sky band and in-between ancestral portraits of the rulers mother and father (Figure 3). Otherwise we know little about him, or his connection to other members of the local pantheon.

Figure 3. The top fragment of Stela 4 from Yaxchilan (front), showing the parents of Bird Jaguar IV as the sun and the moon. Took'al Ajaw, with his flint headdress, appears between them as another  celestial deity. (Photograph by Teobert Maler)

Figure 3. The top fragment of Stela 4 from Yaxchilan (front), showing the parents of Shield Jaguar II as the sun and the moon. Took’al Ajaw, with his flint headdress, appears between them as another celestial deity. (Photograph by Teobert Maler)

It seems that Structure 23 was the formal “house” of Ix K’abal Xook, with Tomb 2 her likely burial place (See Plank 2004:35-54). Several other bones bearing her name were found in the tomb, including one very elaborate mayij baak named for another deity named Bolon Kalneel Chahk. He was evidently another aspect of the storm god who was important in local rituals and political symbolism.

What were these small objects used for, then? It is difficult to say for sure, and the texts on them are not as explicit on this point as we would like them to be. The job of these glyphs was more to identify the owner (Ix K’abal Xook) and the deity depicted. If allowed to speculate, I wonder if such pointed bones might themselves have been used as elaborate figural “labels,” inserted into incense or food offerings (mayij) or some other substance as a way of attributing or directing them to different gods. There is no way to prove such a function, but it might be a useful avenue to ponder and explore further. At any rate, I hope to revisit these issues in a future post, looking at other examples and varieties of inscribed bone artifacts.

References:

Martin, Simon. 2012. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Mathews, Peter Lawrence. 1997. La Escultura de Yaxchilan. INAH, México, D.F.

Perez Campa, Mario. 1990. La vida en Yaxchilan. In La exposición de la civilización maya, pp. 149-154. Mainichi Shinbunsha, Tokyo, Japan.

Plank, Shannon E. 2004. Maya Dwellings in Hieroglyphs and Archaeology: An Integrative Approach to Ancient Architecture and Spatial Cognition. BAR International  Series 1324, Oxford, England.