An Intriguing Date on the Tz’unun Panel 2

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin


Figure 1. Inscribed block from Tz’unun, Belize (Photograph by Bruce Love)

The latest issue of the journal Mexicon has on its cover a photograph of a inscribed panel recently discovered at the ruins of Tz’unun, in northwestern Belize (Hanratty, et. al., 2016) (Figure 1). The new find is of particular interest because the four glyphs on the stone (part of a much longer original text) include an example of the Kaan or Kaanul emblem, k’uhul kaanul ajaw, at the upper left. As many readers know, the history of the Kaanul kingdom and its rulers is undergoing much scrutiny and revision these days, especially in the wake of several new epigraphic finds (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b; Martin 2017; Stuart 2012). For this reason the discovery of any text that refers to this dynasty is of considerable interest, even a partial inscription like we see on the Tz’unun panel.

The three other glyph blocks on the Tz’unun panel record a short Distance Number of 12 days and the CR to which it leads. Mexicon‘s very brief description of the Tz’unun block states that the CR date is 7 Ahau 18 Mol (Hanratty, et. al., 2016). However, I believe it is far more likely to be 7 Chicchan 18 Mol, using a form of the day sign that represents the so-called “serpent segment.” A horizontal line clearly bisects the interior of the day sign, and the scutes of the snake’s body are just visible below. Hints of diagonal lines above conform to this form of Chicchan as well. This variant of Chicchan is common in the inscriptions at Caracol in the early seventh century, and appears from time to time in later texts.

The style and paleography on the Tz’unun panel reminds me a good deal of the Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway (Martin 2017), while not quite as ornate. I therefore think a likely placement of the CR in the Long Count is 7 Chicchan 18 Mol, or August 7, 639 AD. Twelve days earlier is 8 Ben 6 Mol, or July 26, 639 AD. Unfortunately we have no idea what events were being recorded in this text – we are left with only the dates and the intriguing emblem title.

That said, the year 639 AD would have been an interesting one in the history of the Kaanul kingdom. As the recent finds at Xunantunich have demonstrated, a ruler named Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan was executed less than a year later in 640. And three years earlier, in 636, we have tantalizing records of a war between two rival factions of Kaanul lords, with Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan (of Dzibanche?) defeated and Yuknoom Ch’een assuming the throne at Calakmul a short time later (Helmke and Awe 2016b; Martin 2017). My proposed revision of the date on the Tz’unun block, if correct, falls after the defeat of Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan but before his execution. Who, then, is the Kaanul king being named at Tz’unun? We cannot say, but given the possible timing of the narrative it seems that the longer inscription might have contained elements of this fascinating political story, noting episodes we lack elsewhere. Let’s hope more of this new inscription someday comes to light.


Hanratty, Colleen, Bruce Love, Stanley Guenter and Tom Guderjan. 2016. First Evidence of the Ka’an Dynasty in Northern Belize. Mexicon XXXVIII(6):142.

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016a. Death Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich, Belize. PARI Journal 16(4):1-14.

__________________________. 2016b. Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: A Tale of the Snake-head Dynasty as Recounted on Xunantunich Panel 4. PARI Journal 17(2):1-22.

Martin, Simon. 2017. The Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway. Maya Decipherment, January 20, 2017.

Stuart, David. 2012. Notes on a New Inscription from La Corona. Maya Decipherment, June 30, 2012.

Old Notes on /jo/ and /wo/ Reply

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin


Figure 1. A late example of the jo syllable from the Dresden Codex.

Way back in 1987 Steve Houston wrote me with some important insights about a hieroglyphic sign found from time to time in the Dresden and Madrid Codices and in the monuments of the Classic period (Figure 1). Early Maya epigraphers such as Benjamin Lee Whorf and J. Eric S. Thompson had long assumed this was a  word-sign for hax, “to drill,” based on the images of fire-drilling that accompanied its appearances in the codices. Most scholars accepted this rather iffy reading until Steve’s important realization that the sign was instead a CV syllable for ho, as in the spelling ho-ch’o and ho-ch’a for hoch’, another verb root in Yucatec meaning “to drill.” (Years later this reading would be refined to jo, reflecting the key distinction made in Classic Mayan between /h/ and /j/ – a contrast that was lost historically in colonial and modern Yucatec [Grube 2004]) . In the summer of 1987, after some days exploring sites and museums in Yucatan, I struck up a correspondence with Steve about a few new and exciting patterns I had seen involving his new jo sign.  These appeared to solidify the reading beyond any doubt. Soon his thoughts on jo made their into print in the journal Antiquity, discussed within his larger article of phoneticism in Maya writing (Houston 1988).


Figure 2.  u wojool, “the glyphs of…”

Building on Steve’s ideas, I posited that the jo sign might help to explain a common hieroglyph found in the texts of the Puuc region, u-?-jo-li, evidently a possessed noun based on a root Coj (Figure 2). My notes of that time explored how an unknown sign before Steve’s jo appeared elsewhere with the possible value wo, suggesting u wojool (or as I then wrote it, u uohol), “the writing, hieroglyph of…”  This reading came to pan-out nicely, and in the texts of Yucatan and northern Campeche it appears in reference to the hieroglyphic decoration on certain architectural features such as jambs and door lintels (Maya texts can be strangely self-referential in this way).


Figure 3. Examples of the spelling ti-jo AJAW from emblem glyph titles at Dzibilchaltun, Yucatan. (a) DBC:St.19, (B) DBC: inscribed bone. (Photos by the author)

My notes also touched the possibility that jo could explain a title that appeared on Stela 19 from Dzibilchaltun, Yucatan, reading ti-jo AJAW? (Figure 3a).  This seemed to me to be an emblem glyph for the local ruler, and a Classic use of the historical name of nearby Merida, T’ho or Tiho. The idea was particularly exciting to me at the time (and still is), as it suggested a rare case of a historical place name traceable back to the Late Classic period. Later finds at Dzibilchaltun produced better examples of this emblem title, as on a beautiful bone object excavated by the INAH project directed by Ruben Maldonado (Figure 3b). We now know that this local emblem presents a more complex term incorporating another glyph, as in ?-KAAN ti-jo, a sequence that is surely related to the elaborated name of ancient Mérida known from colonial sources Ichcaansiho’. Dzibilichaltun was perhaps an early political and ritual center that was later moved to present-day Mérida, also the site of a very large ruin at the time of the conquest.

At any rate, shown below are my hasty notes from July 31, 1987 and then a letter to Steve Houston of a month later (where I also posit confirmation of the common NAL sign reading, which came into play in our collaborative work on Classic place names).  My school work took over that fall and I never got to publish on u-wojol and the glyph for the ancient name of Merida, Tiho. So here it is.

References Cited:

Grube, Nikolai. 2004. The Orthographic Distinction between Velar and Glottal Spirants in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. In The Linguistics if Maya Writing, edited by Soren Wichmann, pp. 61-82. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Houston, Stephen D. 1988. The Phonetic Decipherment of Maya Glyphs. Antiquity 62:126-135.


David Stuart’s working notes on the jo (ho) and wo (uo) syllables, July 31, 1987


Letter to Steve Houston, August 30, 1987

Birth of the Sun: Notes on the Ancient Maya Winter Solstice 15

by David Stuart, University of Texas at Austin

With the recent passing of the winter solstice it seems a good time to revisit some ideas I penned in 2009, regarding a possible ancient Maya record of the shortest day of the year. This appears on Zacpeten, Altar 1, an inscribed disc-shaped stone discovered broken and re-used as blocks in Postclassic masonry (Pugh, et. al. 1998) (Figure 1). It was originally dedicated on or near the important period ending, in the year 830 C.E.. The design of the altar is a carefully conceived cosmogram emphasizing four lateral points around a circle and center-point, a layout that echoes the familiar Mesoamerican model of space-time. The 36 hieroglyphs are arranged as a play on the important cosmological numbers 20 and 4 (20 + 4 x 4). And, as I argued some years ago, its self-contained text just might present the only Classic Maya description of the solar “birth” at winter solstice.

Zacpeten Alt 1

Figure 1. Zacpeten, Altar 1, top. Drawing by David Stuart.

One date is written on the altar: 8 Caban seating of Cumku. In the standard GMT correlation (584283) this falls on December 21, 809, whereas on the newer Martin-Skidmore correlation (584286) is falls on December 24 (Martin and Skidmore 2012). Either way, it falls on or reasonably close to the winter solstice.

Zacpeten altar opening

Figure 2. Portion of the Altar 1 text with possible solstice date, birth verb, and mountain location.

A few details of the inscription suggest that the text describes the cosmic rebirth of the sun, later linking this cosmological event to the life of a historical ruler. The main event, recorded after the CR date, is birth (Figure 2). Here though we see the unique addition of locational information, recorded in several hieroglyphs after the birth verb (no record of a historical birth states location in this way, as far as I’m aware). The place(s) mentioned strongly suggests a mythological setting, beginning with the glyph immediately following “birth,” a prepositional phrase based on the hieroglyph often described as the “portal” sign or “centipede’s maw” (see the fourth hieroglyph in Figure 2). This logogram is perhaps read as WAY, with the related meanings “chamber, basin, cistern” (Lacadena, personal communication 2003; see Grube, Lacadena and Martin 2003) (not to be confused with the very different term wahy, referring to demonic, transforming wizards and animal-spirits).

emerging sun

Figure 3. Drawing of carved bone showing sun K’inch Ajajw emerging from or consumed by the night (ak’ab) via the centipede’s maw. Drawing by K. Taube (from Taube 2003, Fig. 4c).

It has long been known that this “portal” sign represents a vertical hole or cavity in the earth. Some contexts suggest that it has architectural associations as well, referring to inner vaulted chambers of buildings (Carrasco and Hull 2002; Carrasco 2012). I believe its essential meaning is as a vertical hole in the earth — a planting hole, a chultun-like waterhole, or perhaps (in Yucatan) an open-air cenote. It refers to places that hold water, from where plants grow, and by extension as spatial and temporal points of emergence. Its common presence in the hieroglyph for the month Uayeb is probably related to this general idea, reading in full U-WAY?-HAAB, perhaps for the place or point of the year’s emergence and beginning. In iconography the sun god is sometimes shown emerging from such a space, depicted in its animate form as the jaws of a bony snake or centipede (see Taube 2003:411) (Figure 3). These probably are in reference to the sun’s rise from (or descent into) the earth. Long ago I argued that images of emergence from open maws of serpents and bony snakes — one of the most common tropes in Maya iconography —  were visual metaphors for birth (Stuart 1988). Here on the Zacpeten altar the “maw” or “portal” sign thus marks the location of the birth event, a usage related to these same emergence themes.

The altar’s text goes on to specify a place called K’inich Pa… Witz, “the solar ? hill,” which is described as a chan ch’een, “sky-cave,” a spatial term that I believe describes ritual centers and nodes of ceremonial activity (Stuart 2014). The choice of terms and phraseology may again point away from a typical record of a ruler’s birth, and more towards an event of religious or cosmological importance. If we consider the solar references, the “maw,” and the date recorded, it seems natural to think that the Zacpeten altar shows a Classic Maya record of a winter solstice, using language that describes the event as the birth of the sun from the earth.

Nevertheless there seems to exist an important historical dimension to this inscription as well. After the record of the solar birth at the “maw” and mountain we find the name of a local ruler who ruled over the Mutul dynasty in the later years of the Classic period, sharing the same emblem glyph we know from the ruling family of Tikal.  The names of his mother and father complete the circular text. The father is named Bahlaj Chan K’awiil, identical to the name of the noted ruler of Dos Pilas (also a claimant to the Mutul title) who ruled in the seventh century.

The protagonist’s name looks to to begin as K’inich ? Tahn, and follows directly after the location statement. It’s probably significant that he carries the same solar honorific k’inich in his name, indicating that the sun is embodied either as the living king or as a recently deceased royal ancestor.  Yet there’s some ambiguity in all of this since we’re unsure of the name of the living king at the time the altar was dedicated. It remains possible that the altar records a local king’s historical birth which happened to fall on or near a winter solstice, prompting its description as an event of cosmic renewal. In any case, there seems to be something more “cosmic” going on here than we would expect with a straightforward historical record of a king’s birth.

As noted in my 2009 paper, the altar’s possible mention of a solar birth from a maw-like “portal” may offer a textual parallel of one of the most famous images in Maya art and iconography – the sarcophagus lid of K’inich Janab Pakal (Figure 4). This scene also features a figurative birth, with Pakal centrally placed as both infant (embodying the patron deity Unen K’awiil) and as adult at the moment of his resurrection as the rising eastern sun. He also appears at the base the large cruciform tree (the “shiny jewel tree”) that is emerges from the centipede’s maw (the earthly “portal”) at the lower part of the scene, enclosing the front-facing skull that I believe represents as an animate seed from which the tree emerges. The skull is in turn is conflated with the solar k’in bowl that we other know as an incense burner or sacrificial container, as Taube (1998) has demonstrated (many elaborate clay  incense burners are, I believe, conceived of as “seeds” that “sprout” through emanating smoke). It is surely significant that the k’in bowl beneath Pakal serves as the hieroglyph for EL, “to emerge, come out,”which in turn is the basis for the word and hieroglyph for “east,” elk’in. In sum, the infantilized Pakal, in death, is the newborn manifestation of Palenque’s patron deity, shown rising as the eastern sun and ascending into the sky.

Palenque sarcophagus

Figure 4. The lid of the sarcophagus of K’inch Janab Pakal, perhaps showing his cosmic rebirth as the eastern sun. Photograph by Merle Greene Robertson.

Palenque sarcophagus top

Figure 5. View of the front (southern) edge of Pakal’s sarcophagus, showing its record of birth and death highlighted in red paint, in direct relation to the scene atop the lid. Photograph by David Stuart.

Pakal’s (re)birth and death are conceptually fused in this design, an interpretation that is bolstered by the text on the viewer’s “front” (or southern) edge of the sarcophagus (Figure 5), which may serve as a sort of caption for the scene atop the lid. This glyph sequence is integrated to the larger text around the perimeter which records a long series of deaths (och bih, “road-enterings”) of Pakal’s prominent ancestors  (see Lounsbury 1974; Josserand 1995; Stuart and Stuart 2008; Hopkins and Josserand 2012). However, when viewed from the doorway of the tomb this band of glyphs also can serve as a self-contained statement about the scene and its protagonist. The inscription first gives a chronological statement of Pakal’s lifespan, from birth to road-entering, and then notes how his passing “follows the actions” of his many deceased ancestors (mam). The longer text around the perimeter of the lid provides the background and larger story, but the band of glyphs on this southern edge – what Josserand rightly called the ”peak” of the overall written narrative — operates on its own in conjunction with the scene. The king is born and the king dies, and the iconography emphasizes the conceptual unity of these two life events.

What isn’t so clear on the sarcophagus is an obvious connection to the winter solstice. Pakal entered his own path in late August of 683, in the height of summer, as the time of the sun’s daily presence was visibly waning.  Other inscribed dates surrounding Pakal’s death and the dedication of the tomb and temple offer no obvious connection, either.  However, it is perhaps important to point out Alonso Mendez’s interesting analyses of solar alignments associated with the Temple of the Inscriptions, elaborating on a connection Linda Schele first posited many years ago. As Alonso recently notes, the sun sets directly behind the Temple of the Inscriptions on the winter solstice when viewed from the doorway of House E of the Palace, Pakal’s very own throne room, built in the early years of his reign. While subtle, I suspect that solstitial symbolism is inherent in the design of both the funerary building and in the iconography of the tomb.

CRC sun deity

Figure 6. Detail of Caracol, Stela 6, naming chan u bih k’in, “four are the paths of the sun.” Drawing by D. Stuart.

Of course the winter solstice is widely viewed across the globe as the rebirth of the sun, the point at which is begins its annual journey to gain heat and strength. The Maya are no different in this view (Gossen 1974:39). Among the Kiche’ Maya, the solstices are in addition considered as “changes of path,” or xolkat be, a term that emphasizes the sun’s new movement rather than its stationary position (Tedlock 1982: 180). The sarcophagus lid presents an image of the sun’s eastern rise and perhaps also of its new solsticial movement in the winter months. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the event repeated throughout the lid’s inscription is och bih, “road- or path-entering,” a common Classic Maya expression for death. The connection to between roads and the solstices is also indicated by the fascinating mention of chan u bih k’in, “four are the roads of the sun,” in the iconography of Caracol’s Stela 6 (Figure 6). This may be a reference to the four solsticial points on the horizon (see Stuart 2011:82).

Getting back to the main point of my discussion, the Zacpeten altar has a very suggestive inscription with a date that falls on or near the solstice, with a text commemorating birth and a solar protagonist. And like most Maya texts that might pique the interest of archaeo-astronomers, the real point wasn’t about detached observations of solar or astral phenomena — rather it was about how these cosmological structures and movements pertained to the kings who physically and conceptually embodied them.

References Cited

Carrasco, Michael D. 2012. Epilogue:Portal, Turtles and Mythic Places. In Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History, ed. by K. R. Spencer and M. D. Werness-Rude, pp. 374-412. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Gossen, Gary. 1974. Chamulas in the World of the Sun. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Grube, Nikolai, Alfonso Lacadena and Simon Martin, 2003. Chichen Itzá and Ek Balam. Terminal Classic Inscriptions from Yucatan. Notebook for the XXVII Hieroglyphic Forum at Texas, March, 2003.

Hopkins, Nicholas A., and J. Kathryn Josserand. 2012. The Narrative Structure of Chol Folktales: One Thousand Years of Literary Tradition. In Parallel Worlds: Genre, Discourse and Poetics in Contemporary, Colonial and Classic Maya Literature, ed. By K. M. Hull and M. D. Carrasco, pp. 21-44. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Hull, Kerry M., and Michael D. Carrasco. 2004. Mak-“Portal” Rituals Uncovered: An Approach to Interpreting Symbolic Architecture and the Creation of Sacred Space Among the Maya. In Continuity and Change: Maya Religious Practices in Temporal Perspective, ed. by D. Graña Behrens, Nikolai Grube, Christian M. Prager, Krauke Sachse, Stefanie Teufel, and Elisabeth Wagner, pp. 134–140. Acta Mesoamericana Vol. 14. Saurwein Verlag Markt Schwaben.

Josserand, Kathryn. 1995. Participant Tracking in Hieroglyphic Texts: Who was that masked Man? Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 5(1):65-89

Lounsbury, Floyd G. 1974.The Inscription of the Sarcophagus Lid at Palenque, in Primera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, Part II, ed. by M. G. Robertson, pp. 5-20. Robert Louis Stevenson School, Pebble Beach.

Martin, Simon and Joel Skidmore. 2012. Exploring the 584286 Correlation between he Maya and European Calendars. The PARI Journal 13(2):3-16.

Pugh, Timothy W., Rómulo Sánchez Polo, Leslie G. Cecil, Don S. Rice y Prudence M. Rice. 1998. Investigaciones Postclásicas e Históricas en Petén, Guatemala: Las excavaciones del proyecto Maya Colonial en Zacpeten. En XI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1997, ed. by J.P. Laporte y H. Escobedo, pp.903-914. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala.

Stuart, David. 1988.Blood Symbolism in Maya Iconography. In Maya Iconography, edited by E. P. Benson and G. G. Griffin, pp. 175-221. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

__________. 2009. The Symbolism of Zacpeten, Altar 1. In The Kowoj: Identity, Migration, and Geopolitics in Late Postclassic Petén, Guatemala, ed. by Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice, pp. 317-326. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

__________. 2011. The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya.Random House, New York.

__________. 2014. Earth-caves and Sky-caves: Intersections of Landscape, Territory and Cosmology among the Classic Maya. Lecture presented at the Mesoamerica Center Colloquium, Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin, September 25, 2014.

Stuart, David, and George E. Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London.

Taube, Karl. 1998. The Jade Hearth: Centrality, Rulership, and the Classic Maya Temple. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, ed. by S. D. Houston, pp. 427-78, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

_________. 2003. Maws of Heaven and Hell: The Symbolism of the Centipede and Serpent in Classic Maya Religion. In Antropologia de la eternidad: La muerte en la cultura maya, ed. by A. Ciudad Ruiz, M. Humberto Ruz Sosa, M. Josefe Iglesias Ponce de Leon, pp. 405- 442. Publicaciones de la SEEM, no. 7. SEEM, UNAM, México, D.F.

Tedlock, Barbara. 1982. Time and the Highland Maya. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

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)