Getting Stoned (in the Grolier Codex)

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

figure 3.jpg

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Taube, Karl, and Marc Zender. 2009. American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, 161–220. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

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

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).

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 2.57.22 PM.png

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).

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 11.14.55 PM.png
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 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.


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.


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).


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.


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:             12 Etz’nab     6 Pohp             Feb. 26           AD 692               12 Ben            6 Pohp              Feb. 17           AD 731                 12 Ak’bal       6 Pohp              Feb. 10           AD 757                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.


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 (  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).


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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 6.18.27 PM.png

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.


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.


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

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.

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.

REPORT: Name and Image on Two Codex-style Vessels 3

by David Stuart

Among the many images in Justin Kerr’s wondrous database of Maya vases are two codex style vessels, K1552 and K1647 (Figures 1 and 2). These are part of a much larger set of vessels that bear symbols and iconography inspired by Teotihuacan, including images of so-called war-serpents and “Tlalocs” (see Robiscek and Hales 1981: Tables 5, 6, 7, 15, and 16). Many of these look to be painted by the same artist, including the two pictured here.

Rollout of Kerr 1552, showing jaguar paw and fire elements flanking a central k'an cross, in pseudo-Teotihuacan style. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Figure 1. Rollout of Kerr 1552, showing jaguar paw and fire elements flanking a central k’an cross, in pseudo-Teotihuacan style. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Rollout of Kerr 1647, showing two pseudo-Teotihuacan figures with jaguar paw and flame elements. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Figure 2. Rollout of Kerr 1647, showing two pseudo-Teotihuacan figures with jaguar paw and flame elements. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Compared those many vessels the imagery on K1152 and K1647 stands out. We see repeating ornate designs exhibiting k’an crosses, “fans” and other elements that commonly are used to evoke a Teotihuacan style in Late Classic Maya art (I suspect many of these elements have origins in butterfly imagery — another frequent theme of Early Classic central Mexican iconography). The design of K1152 is somewhat simpler than on K1647, where a human figure is added to the mix. He wears a so-called “tassled headdress” — here a rare Late Classic depiction — that is a familiar feature of Teotihuacan warriors throughout Mesoamerican art (Millon 1988).

Two elements seem to be featured in the repeating iconographic assemblages on each vessel — a protruding jaguar paw to the left of each design, and a prominent set of curving flames to the right. It’s an odd combination that doesn’t find parallel in the repetoire of Maya or Teotihuacan iconography, as far as I’m aware. But the paw and the flames are otherwise familiar as hieroglyphic elements that spell the core component of the royal name Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, who ruled at Calakmul as the king of the Kaanal (or Kaanul) kingdom from to 686 to 697 CE. In truncated examples his name is simply written with a jaguar paw (ICH’AAK) and fire (K’AHK’), for Yich’aak K’ahk’, “Claw of Fire” (the phonetic prefix yi- in Figure 3d provides the prevocalic possessive pronoun y-).

FIgure 3. Name variants of the Calakmul ruler Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk'. (Drawings a and b by David Stuart; c and d by Simon Martin).

FIgure 3. Name variants of the Calakmul ruler Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. (Drawings a and b by David Stuart; c and d by Simon Martin).

I have to wonder if the icons on the two related vessels are symbolic references to this important Calakmul king. Could the profiles shown on K1647 be his portrait? Throughout Maya art royal names could be routinely displayed in a similar fashion, where the elements of script often assumed the appearance of iconography. We often find such names in headdresses, for example, where the lines between image and script seem almost completely blurred (a playful overlap that Maya scribes and artists were apparently trained to feature and exploit).

The connection of these vases to Calakmul goes well beyond any strained visual link. It’s now firmly established that these and other codex-style vessels were produced in the so-called Mirador “Basin” (a geographical misnomer) at centers such as Nakbe, which were evidently in the close political sphere of Calakmul (Reents-Budet, et. al. 2010). The stylistic allusions to Teotihuacan are suggestive as well. According to a two different references in the inscriptions of La Corona, Yich’aak K’ahk’ assumed the unusual title Waxaklajuun Ubaah Chan, a name otherwise closely associated with the so-called Teotihuacan War Serpent. These can be found on Stela 1 and on Block V of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Figure 4). The title probably alludes to Yich’aak K’ahk’s importance as a powerful warrior during a time he was warring with Calakmul’s great southern rival Tikal.

FIgure 4. Teotihuacan War Serpent title with the name of Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk', from Block 5 of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 at La Corona. (Drawing by David Stuart)

Figure 4. The Teotihuacan War Serpent title with the name of Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, from Block 5 of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 at La Corona. (Drawing by David Stuart)

The timing for such a personal reference seems about right, too, for many if not most codex-style ceramics appear to have been produced in a relatively short span of a few decades in the late seventh and early eight centuries.

Readers might wonder why I haven’t addressed what the line of glyphs on the vessels actually say. The texts below the rims of the two vessels are nearly identical. Both are standard dedicatory formulae, marking them as drinking cups for cacao, and owned by a k’uhul cha(?)tahn winik, a “holy person” of place or court named Cha(?)tahn (the reading of one of the signs as cha in this context is uncertain; I suspect it may be a logogram of unknown value, and not the syllable sign cha). This may be an indirect reference to a character named Yopaat Bahlam, who carries this same title and is named on many codex style vessels. I suspect, as others probably have, that he was a local ruler of the Late Classic settlement at Nakbe or somewhere nearby, as well as being a subordinate ally under Calakmul’s power.

So in sum, I tentatively suggest that the two vases shown may have been painted ca. 690 CE to commemorate Calakmul’s warrior-king Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. Their decorations look to be personal references to that k’uhul ajaw — emblem-like name glyphs melded with iconographic allusions to Teotihuacan. It’s probably significant that the writing system that was actually used at Teotihuacan consisted of proper names written in a similar emblematic manner (Taube 2000). The painter of these two vessels may have wanted to show the king’s name using a mix of Teotihuacan and Maya styles, not unlike the glyphs rendered in the Teotihuacan “font” in the Temple Inscription from Temple 26 at Copan (Stuart 2005).


Millon, Clara. 1988. “A reexamination of the Teotihuacan tassel headdress insignia.” In Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, edited by Kathleen Berrin, pp. 114-134. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco.

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Sylviane Boucher Le Landais, Yoly Paloma Carillo, 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 Guatamala, 2010, Guatemala City.

Stuart, David. 2005. A Foreign Past: The Writing and Representation of History on A Royal Ancestral Shrine at Copan.  In Copan: The History of An Ancient Maya Kingdom, edited by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L. Fash.  pp. 373-394.  The School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

Taube, Karl. 2000. The Writing System of Ancient Teotihuacan. Ancient America I. Center for Ancient American Studies, Barnardsville, NC and Washington, DC.

NEWS: Discovery of an Inscribed Temple Facade at Holmul, Guatemala 5


A large and beautifully preserved temple facade has been unearthed this year at Holmul, Guatemala, by an archaeological team led by Francisco Estrada-Belli. The imagery features a local Holmul ruler named ? Chan Yopaat seated atop a world mountain (witz). Large serpents emerge from the witz mask and face toward other seated figures — possibly ancestors  — at the corners.

The official National Geographic announcement (with photos) can be found here.

The Boston University press release is here.

UPDATE: A Higher res picture is available here, courtesy of Alex Tokovinine. Thanks, Alex!

One unusual and important feature of the Holmul facade is a long hieroglyphic text that runs along the bottom of the scene. This is now being closely studied and documented by Alex Tokovinine of the Holmul project. It contains a number of royal names, including that of the contemporary ruler from nearby Naranjo, “Aj Wosaaj.”  The inscription also refers to the ruler of the Snake kingdom (Kaanul or Kaanal) when it was based at Dzibanche.

A great find. I only wish Francisco had found this before we had our Art of Maya Architecture gathering at the 2013 UT Maya Meetings!