NEWS: Very Early Maya Ceremonial Architecture at Ceibal 6

Standing_on_Ceremony
The most recent issue of Science includes an article on the remarkable finds recently made at Ceibal (Seibal), Guatemala. Excavations there have revealed very early evidence of Maya ceremonial buildings and civic space, dating as far back as 1000 BCE. It’s wonderful and significant work, extending the roots of Maya religious architecture back to the Early Preclassic. Congratulations go out to Takeshi Inomata (my old Vanderbilt classmate and road-trip companion), Daniela Triadan and their colleagues.

Science News article

Link to Science article (subscription required for full access)

“Early Maya Ceremonial Constructions at Ceibal, Guatemala, and the Origins of Lowland Maya Civilization”

Takeshi Inomata, Daniela Triadan, Kazuo Aoyama, Victor Castillo, and Hitoshi Yonenobu

Science, Vol. 340, no. 6131, pp. 467-471

ABSTRACT:
The spread of plaza-pyramid complexes across southern Mesoamerica during the early Middle Preclassic period (1000 to 700 BCE) provides critical information regarding the origins of lowland Maya civilization and the role of the Gulf Coast Olmec. Recent excavations at the Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala, documented the growth of a formal ceremonial space into a plaza-pyramid complex that predated comparable buildings at other lowland Maya sites and major occupations at the Olmec center of La Venta. The development of lowland Maya civilization did not result from one-directional influence from La Venta, but from interregional interactions, involving groups in the southwestern Maya lowlands, Chiapas, the Pacific Coast, and the southern Gulf Coast.

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A Watery Tableau at El Mirador, Guatemala 3

by James Doyle (Brown University) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

The impersonation of gods abounds in Classic Maya texts and imagery (Houston, Stuart, and Taube 2006: 270-275). Humans donned elaborate masks and costumes to channel deities and to perform dances or reenactments of mythic actions. It is now clear that there were Late Preclassic antecedents to such ritual: for example, Kaminaljuyu Stela 11 displays the “x-ray” view of a lord’s face within the head of the Principal Bird Deity (Fields and Reents-Budet, eds., 2005: Cat. 6, 104-105; see also here). The appearance of a possible masked performer in the Preclassic is hardly surprising. Places for performance and assembly– visible pyramid apices, tiered façades, and plaster-covered plazas — reached their pinnacle size at many Lowland Maya sites.

A recent discovery by the important project at El Mirador, Guatemala, consists of a long set of stucco friezes that depicts two more examples of Late Preclassic deity impersonation (Figure 1). The façades are located in a prominent pathway running east-west in the center of the “Central Acropolis.” They appear to front a large plaza at the base of the “Tecolote” pyramid complex, perhaps adorning part of an ancient water collection system (see map). The figures on the lower frieze have been associated with the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, protagonists of the colonial K’iche Maya creation story, the Popol Vuh (Hansen et al. 2011: 190). Yet, in our view, these figures represent god impersonators and bear no secure connection to twins in the Popol Vuh.

Figure 1. 3D scans of El Mirador friezes, University of South Florida, Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies, http://aist.usf.edu/projects/elmirador/.

The lower, more prominent façade contains three beings: two humans with large headdresses, and the large profile head. The figure on the left, whose face is partially damaged, wears a headdress and shell ear spools. His one visible eye has the inverted-“L” found on some early gods; his mouth displays a circular outline, his outstretched arms and bent legs conform to the pattern of many diving figures in Maya art (see Taube et al. 2010: Fig. 54A).

The central figure strikes a similar posture but in the opposite direction. Both are framed by the diagonal elements with elliptical or volute decorations that recall primordial, living sky bands. The attributes of these bands mark them as maxillae of the animate sky, complete with curved fangs and other teeth; another well-known example is present in a Late Preclassic frieze from Calakmul (Carrasco Vargas 2005: Figure 3, 4).

Figure 2: Chahk figures with curled foreheads or hair (blue) and shell ear spools (green). (a) Calakmul Frieze (drawing by James Doyle after Carrasco Vargas 2005: Fig. 3, 4); (b) Uaxactun Group H Frieze (drawing by James Doyle after Valdés 1993: Fig. 50); (c) Kaminaljuyu Stela 4 (drawing by James Doyle after Taube 1996: Fig. 16b); (d),(e) Izapa Stela 1 (drawings by James Doyle after Taube 1996: Fig. 15a, e); (f) El Mirador Lower Frieze, detail (drawing by James Doyle and Stephen Houston).

The central figure wears a simple knotted belt with an effigy head attached to his lower back. His headdress and chinstrap form the gaping jaws of what is likely a version of Chahk, the god of rain (see Taube 1996: Fig. 15, 16): the diagnostic elements are the curled forehead (or hair) and especially the Spondylus ear spool (Figure 2). The figure on the viewer’s left shares many of the same features, but with different, tufted forehead, as though referring to another aspect of the rain deity. Other such costumed diving figures with curled foreheads appear on contemporaneous stucco friezes at Uaxactun Group H (Valdés 1993: Fig. 50), and Calakmul (Carrasco Vargas 2005: Figure 3, 4).

The profile head on the far right of the lower frieze resembles the many depictions of mountains as breathing beasts in Preclassic and Classic period iconography, such as the witz depicted on the North Wall at San Bartolo (Saturno et al. 2005: 14-21). Perhaps there was another such head on the opposite side, framing this scene as a mythic, mountainous locale from which clouds emerged. This trope in particular goes back to Chalcatzingo Monument 1 (Grove, ed. 1987:115-117) and highlighted in variant form on the San Bartolo North Wall.

The upper façade is an early water-band that contains two large water birds with outstretched wings. The water-band passes over two bulbous cloud or muy elements with swirling volutes, another, archaic guise of Chahk (see Stone and Zender 2011: 142-143). A fascinating detail of the upper frieze is that the artist(s) gave faces – in an archaic, almost “Olmec” style with a snarling upper lip and a single tooth – to the clouds, as if they are peering upward at the water. The central bird figure has the head of an older deity within its breast. This enigmatic bird-god figure appears on many Classic Maya vessels (e.g., K8538, K6181, K6438, K3536, see Finamore and Houston, eds. 2010: 104; see also a related Spondylus shell creature on stuccoed vessel K2027), and is not well understood. The bird on the left of the upper frieze (see here) is likely a cormorant, which possibly would have held a fish in its beak (see K6218, Finamore and Houston, eds. 2010: 103). The water band, probably representing flowing streams of water, as well as avian themes are also present on a slightly later stucco altar from Aguacatal, Campeche (Houston et al. 2005).

The stucco artists of El Mirador were concerned with rain, clouds, waters, Chahk, and water birds that all flow together in the Maya view of grand, hydrological cycles. Perhaps the friezes show a situational composition – a Late Preclassic view of the rainy sky and the water that swirls around in it. Or, perhaps the artists commemorated a narrative of the first rainmakers and their watery assistants. In this way the rulers of El Mirador, through the mechanism of deity impersonation, presented themselves as supernatural agents who controlled the rain. The lower freeze shows the mountains breathing out water as the Chahk impersonators swim in the lower sky; the upper frieze then shows the high altitude products of impersonation, clouds that embody Chahk, and undulating water.

REFERENCES CITED

Carrasco Vargas, Ramón. 2005. The Sacred Mountain: Preclassic Architecture in Calakmul. In Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: LACMA/Scala Publishers.

Fields, Virginia M., and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. The Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: Scala Publishers/LACMA.

Finamore, Daniel, and Stephen Houston, eds. 2010. The Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Grove, David C., ed. 1987. Ancient Chalcatzingo. Austin: University of Texas Press. Available Online: http://www.famsi.org/research/grove/chalcatzingo/index.html.

Hansen, Richard D., Edgar Suyuc Ley, and Héctor E. Mejía. 2011. Resultados de la temporada de investigaciones 2009: Proyecto Cuenca Mirador. In XXIV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2010. B. Arroyo, L. Paiz Aragón, A. Linares Palma, y A. L. Arroyave, eds. Pp. 187-204. Guatemala: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología.

Houston, Stephen, Karl Taube, Ray Matheny, Deanne Matheny, Zachary Nelson, Gene Ware, and Cassandra Mesick. 2005. The Pool of the Rain God: An Early Stuccoed Altar at Aguacatal, Campeche, Mexico. Mesoamerican Voices 2: 37-62.

Houston, Stephen, and David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Saturno, William, Karl Taube, David Stuart, with Heather Hurst. 2005. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 1: The North Wall. Ancient America 7.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2011. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guid to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Taube, Karl, William Saturno, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst. 2010. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 2: The West Wall. Ancient America 10.

Taube, Karl. 1996. The Rainmakers: The Olmec and Their Contribution to Mesoamerican Belief and Ritual. In The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum.

Valdés, Juan Antonio. 1993. Arquitectura y escultura en la Plaza Sure del Grupo H, Uaxactún. In Tikal y Uaxactún en el Preclásico. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 96-121.

More links for El Mirador information:

Mirador Basin Project

Archaeology magazine, 2009

Smithsonian magazine article, 2009

Reuters news article, 2009

Bending Time among the Maya 4

by Stephen Houston

Visitors to Japan, if they make it to Mie prefecture, will wonder at the Ise Grand Shrine. Rebuilt every 20 years, it is said to be exactly similar to buildings first made over a millennium ago (Wada 1995). By the tenets of Shintoism, the shrine is forever new yet perennially old, a replacement that somehow remains the same, regardless of how many times it has been rebuilt. For Mayanists, the example of Ise and its implied concern for the joining of past and present rumble into familiar terrain. After all, every Maya date is relational, existing only in reference to a point in the distant past (the Long Count) or with respect to other positions in a cycle (the Calendar Round and other counts). A present does not exist without a backloaded past and a future that gives it some framing.

A recent book, Anachronic Renaissance, by Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood (2010), prompts further reflection on the meaning of old and the new in Maya texts and images. The main task of the volume is to examine the paradox of Renaissance art, namely, the simultaneous revival and replacement of the past during a crucial period of Western history. Nagel and Wood use a variety of terms and phrases that will resonate with Mayanists: “plural temporality….[the] doubling or bending of time…[the] cultural project of time management,” and “the temporal instability of the artwork” (Nagel and Wood 2010:8, 9, 10). The latter is a precarious state that, despite the reality of replication—think of the renewed beams and thatch at Ise–coincides with the “ontological stability” of certain objects or buildings (Nagel and Wood 2010:30). This “stability” rests on the direct claim that the essence and identity of the shrine remain intact despite the fact that not one scrap of it survives from previous versions.

A more ambitious aim of Anachronic Renaissance is to chart two modes of representation. Both can co-exist as explanations of origins, although they might also “interfere…with one another” (Nagel and Wood 2010:49). The first mode: “substitution,” a process of creation by which artifacts replace earlier, authoritative ones in a “chain of replicas” (Nagel and Wood 2010:30). Thus, in a “mystical…substitutional logic,” “[m]odern copies of painted icons were understood as effective surrogates for lost originals….and new buildings were understood as reinstantiations…of prior structures” (Nagel and Wood 2010:29, 33). By this means, “a material sample of the past could somehow be both an especially powerful testimony to a distant world and…an ersatz for another, now absent artifact” (Nagel and Wood 2010:31). The well-known propensity of the Maya to replicate and improvise new buildings atop older ones would be solid examples of “substitutes.” Although commissioned by particular kings, the buildings were probably viewed as “reinstantiations…of prior structures.” Indeed, their packaging within later construction hints at the sacred bundles of the Maya, who found no contradiction between ritual centrality and the exclusion of sacred things from sight (e.g., Christenson 2006:237). Continuity is an obvious motivation, but there may have been sociological reasons as well. In other settings, as in the Saite 26th dynasty of Egypt, acts of quotation, citation or whole-scale borrowing flourished at times when Egyptian identities were under threat by “increasing numbers of foreigners” (Der Manuelian 1994:xxxv, 402, 409). They glorified, extolled, an ethnic identity that seemed to be in danger of dilution. Yet, in these works, there was no intent to deceive, and many of these productions expressed a “contemporary originality” (Der Manuelian 1994:409). The state of being poised in two times, invoking one period while residing in another, suggests in precise parallel the “multiple” or “plural temporality” described by Nagel and Wood. (fn 1) They appeal to the past–define it as something distinct—yet nullify their distance from it.

In contrast, Nagel and Wood’s second mode, the “performative” or “authorial,” highlights the historical singularity of an object, its placement in linear time, its novelty and capacity to make fresh, unexpected connections, its attention to the “time of manufacture” and the people behind it (Nagel and Wood 2010:30, 94). This, more than the first, is a mode that finds a lodging for “forgery” or “pastiche,” “the invention of a new work in a plausible past style” (Nagel and Wood 2010:289). Some of these were definitely meant to hoodwink, especially with objects prized by collectors. Yet, many “copies,” seldom exact, had their own value (Welch 2005:288).

These modes serve as a backdrop to the role and meaning of “archaicism” in certain Maya objects. The most striking are those that display Preclassic imagery (>1700 ya) with glyphic texts that are unlikely to date to that time. Alfonso Lacadena and I have long believed, for example, that the so-called “Hauberg Stela” (now in the Princeton University Art Museum) combines an archaic presentation of the body (wide, rounded hips, narrow waist, profile legs that barely overlap) with glyphs that seem to come from some centuries later (cf. Schele 1988, who opted for an early date of AD 199). In much the same way, one Terminal Classic monument at Ceibal, St. 13, appears to have glyphs—“quotations” or “citations”?—from an earlier time (CMHI 7:37). In both cases, the “time-bending” is in the temporal slippage between image and text, albeit with different forms of latching. By means of its image, the Hauberg Stela “bends back” to earlier periods; Ceibal St. 13 does so via the style and contents of its text. At the stuccoed temple of El Diablo, which forms part of El Zotz, Guatemala, my colleague, Edwin Román, and I have found an image of the sun god, surmounted by a glyph, that appears to be far earlier than the probable date of the building, c. AD 350-375. The eyes of the god have slotted eyes that recall Preclassic models. The glyph block above, perched over the forehead, includes a face with down-turned mouth (a Preclassic feature generally, with roots in the Olmec), and an unexpectedly archaic yu sign.

The best example of “substitution” or “bending back” may be the “Diker bowl” (Coe 1973: pl. 1), now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1999.484.3; Figures 1-3). The form of the stone vessel is of a Preclassic chocolate pot, the spouted handle being used to froth the liquid within (e.g., McAnany and Murata 2006; Powis et al. 2002). Not surprisingly, the style of the iconography is pure Preclassic, too. There are two deities, one an avian creature, the other with features of the Maya maize god. The figures float below a skyband marked by Ik’ or “wind” signs, alternating with the sloping lines associated with such bands in Preclassic contexts. Both gods seem to carry their name glyphs above their heads, of which a clear cross-tie appears at A3 in the vertical text on the handle.

Fig. 1. Diker Bowl, with avian god (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).


Fig. 2. Diker Bowl, with probable maize god, perhaps AJ BIH in forehead (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).


Fig. 3. Diker Bowl, with archaic skyband (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

The text is difficult. Nonetheless, through the kindness of Justin Kerr, I have obtained a photograph that reveals some of its details (Figure 4a, 4b). This is where interest mounts: against expectation, the glyphs appear to be fully Early Classic, not Preclassic, in date (n.b.: it is almost certain that the text and image are contemporary, in that the handle has the same relief as the images and could not have been added later). Position A1 may contain a version of the TI’ logograph identified by David Stuart, and in a schematic form that is securely Early Classic. A sign for “mouth” accords with what was surely a drinking vessel, although it is unlikely to read “drink,” uk’, in this context because of the prefixed u pronoun. Just beneath it lies what may be a reference to the vessel itself, with body and neck somewhat visible. The probable t’abayi sign that composes part of A2 conforms to this dates, as does what appears to be an admittedly aberrant spelling of a transitive verb at A4: u-K’AL-wa TUUN, doubtless in reference to the stone-bowl and its dedication. (The name of the god is, as mentioned before, at A2.) An unusual form of tu, a preposition with ergative pronoun, may figure in A5. To my knowledge, spellings of transitives come exclusively from the Classic period.

Fig. 4: Diker Bowl, with close-up photograph, (a), by J. Kerr (copyright J. Kerr), and, (b), pencil sketch by S. Houston.

What does the Diker Bowl tell us? This: that the Maya were fully capable of executing temporally disjunctive texts and images when they needed to do so. The ease with which they accomplished this task is, in the case of the Diker Bowl, surprising, at least for me. But it fits well with the facility the Maya showed in juxtaposing (and thus hybridizing) images of radically different style. Consider the Teotihuacano “text” on the summit of Temple 26 at Copan, ably drawn by David Stuart, and now reconstituted in the sculpture museum at the site, or the various Tajinesque, Veracruz elements that interweave with Maya designs on Maya vessels (e.g., K1446). Was the invocation of ancient gods the main motivation in showing them in archaic guise, on a cult object that may purportedly have “belonged” to one of them? Whatever the answer, the ability to step out of time, to exist in two periods or two regions all at once, suggests an effortless repositioning….and an expressive domain that we have yet fully to explore.

Footnote 1: Some of these originals were not so much lost as magically created. Examples would include the acheiropoieta (“not handmade”) icons of Byzantium and elsewhere—namely, the images crafted by non-human, divine hands, as in the Shroud of Turin or the painting of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico. Such objects possessed a kind of “absolute singularity”—they could not transmute into “substitutables” for the reason that they uniquely and irreplaceably expressed the shaping hand of God (Nagel and Wood 2010:72; their uniqueness makes them ideal foci of pilgrimage, Nagel and Wood 2010:72)—indeed, the thought come to mind that some Maya god effigies, especially the small, hardstone ones in of Chahk that Karl Taube and I have been noting for some time, were considered acheiropoieta (or something like them) among the Maya.

Acknowledgement: Justin Kerr showed his customary generosity in sharing the photograph reproduced here.

REFERENCES CITED:

Christenson, Allen. 2006. Sacred Bundle Cults in Highland Guatemala. In Sacred Bundles: Ritual Acts of Wrapping and Binding in Mesoamerica, edited by Julia Guernsey and F. Kent Reilly, pp. 226-246. Barnardsville, NC: Boundary End Archaeology Research Center.

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

Der Manuelian, Peter. 1994. Living in the Past: Studies in Archaicism of the Egyptian Twenty-sixth Dynasty. London: Kegan Paul.

McAnany, Patricia, and S. Murata. 2006. From Chocolate Pots to Maya Gold: Belizean Cacao Farmers through the Ages. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron McNeil, pp. 429-450. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Nagel, Alexander, and Christopher Wood. 2010. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone Books.

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst and Stanley M. Tarka, Jr. 2001. Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity 13(1), pp. 85-106.

Schele, Linda. 1985. The Hauberg Stela. Bloodletting and the Mythos of Maya Rulership. In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by M.G. Robertson and V. Fields, pp. 135-150. San Francisco: PARI.

Wada, Atsumu. 1995. The Origins of the Ise Shrine. Acta Asiatica: Bulletin of the Institute of Eastern Culture, 69, pp. 63-83.

Welch, Evelyn. 2005. Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy, 1400-1600. New Haven: Yale University Press.

A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela 7

In a few Classic Maya texts we find records of coming-of-age ceremonies involving royal children, where bloodleting seems a dominant theme. These ritual events haven’t yet been collectively discussed or analyzed in the literature (at least as far as I know) so I hope this brief post might help point the way for further thought, especially with regard to the interpretation of an important ealry Maya monument known as the Hauberg Stela (see the third and last image, scrolling below).

We can first turn to the vivid but damaged depiction of one such childhood rite on Panel 19 from Dos Pilas, shown here.

dpl-pan19-lores.jpg

At center stage we see the young prince shedding drops of blood into a dish, standing before a kneeling priest who holds a stingray spine — the instrument of choice for genital bloodletting in much of ancient Mesomerica. The boy’s mother and father (Ruler 3 of Dos Pilas) look on from the left, as do also two attendants at right, one called the “guardian of the boy.” The main inscription is too damaged to read in full, unfortunately, but it does mention the ch’ok ajaw title (“prince”) as well as the fact that the ritual was witnessed by “the twenty-eight lords.” Evidently this sort of youth ceremony was a major political event in its own right.

crcyaxchab.jpg

Texts at other sites seem to describe very similar sorts of episodes. In a passage from Stela 3 of Caracol, show here, we read of a ceremony called yax ch’ab, involving the five-year old youngster named Sak Baah Witzil — he would would later reign as the important ruler Tum Yohl K’inich (also known as “Kan II,” in Martin and Grube’s Chronicles of Maya Kings and Queens). As others have noted, yax ch’ab is surely a bloodletting ceremony, literally meaning “first penance” or “first creation.” Ch’ab alone is a key term used for adult bloodletting ceremonies, as best seen on Yaxchilan, Lintel 24. According to the Caracol passage, the boy’s father oversaw the ritual according to the same passage, making for an even more precise parallel to the Dos Pilas scene.

(Another yax ch’ab ritual is recorded on the side of Tikal’s Stela 10, a much eroded monument, but the context is not so clear; it too could well refer to a childhood bloodletting ceremony.)

hauberg-lores.jpg

This brings us the remarkable Huaberg Stela, a key Early Classic sculpture dating to about 200-300 AD, now in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum. The miniature stela shows a standing figure in supernatural attire, cradling a long serpent that arches above his head. Images of conjured ancestral figures climb the body of the snake, and another likely ancestor image emerges from the gaping maw above. The main verb in the accompanying text is again yax ch’ab, “first penance,” leading me to consider the Hauberg Stela as a commemoration of a young boy’s first bloodletting, perhaps involving also a performance of deity impersonation. The unusual small size of the monument — it’s only about 80 cms in hieght — may be due to it being a “child-size” stela.

Published studies of the Hauberg Stela don’t mentioned this connection to youth ceremonies, so my take on it goes against established wisdom in some ways. For example, the entry in the Lords of Creation exhibit catalog (Fields and Reents-Budet 2005) repeats the long-held view first tentatively advanced by Linda Schele (1985) that the Hauberg Stela depicts a king named “Bak T’ul” in a bloodletting “vision quest” (a term, by the way, I strongly object to). Bloodletting it certainly is, but based on a closer reading of the glyphs and drawing key comparisons, I think a good case can be made that the Hauberg Stela instead celebrates a royal child’s auto-sacrifice, a “First Penance.”

(By the way, “Bak T’ul” is not the correct reading of the personal name in any case, whether it be a child or adult. It looks instead to be CHAK, “red,” before an undeciphered animal head sign erroneously analyzed before as a rabbit, t’ul.)

* * *

Further reading:

Fields, Virginia, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: LACMA

Schele, Linda. 1985. The Hauberg Stela. Bloodletting and the Mythos of Maya Rulership. In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by M.G. Robertson and V. Fields, pp. 135-150. San Francisco: PARI

The Dallas Bone 1

One of my favorite Maya artworks is this intricately incised bone dating to about 600 A.D., now on display in the Dallas Art Museum. It’s been published and analyzed before (sort of), and is well-known to most scholars, but whenever I see the original I’m always stunned by its tiny size — less than 10 cms. in height.

dallasbone.jpg

The scene depicts the crowning of a king, in all likelihood a mythical figure based on the Maize God. An elderly gent resembling God L holds aloft an elaborate royal headdress in the form of the Principal Bird Deity, shown also perched on the celestial band above the throne. The iconography references, I think, an important storyline from ancient Maya origin mythology, where a great supernatural bird — probably based on an eagle, and a basic symbol of royal authority since Preclassic times — descended from the heavens to engender kingship as a political and cosmological paradigm. The story is depicted on many other objects, including the famous Blowgunner Vase (Kerr 1226), where we see a melding of this ancient story with somewhat different motifs and episodes of the later Popol Vuh epic. Marc Zender has traced some aspects of it as well in his discussion of the verb ehm, “to descend.” The San Bartolo mural shows the most vivid scene of the Principal Bird’s descent on the center of its west wall, as Bill Saturno, Karl Taube and I will present in a formal publication in the coming year.

The date recorded on the Dallas Bone is “5 K’an End of Yaxk’in,” perhaps a day of great mythological significance. I say this because in the 260-day calendar 5 K’an comes just two days after 3 Ik’ — the single day written next to with the descending Principal Bird image at San Bartolo. That, in turn, comes two days after the important 1 Ajaw featured in the Blowgunner Vase, and which obviously served as the basis of the name Hun Ajaw (meaning in a mythical sense “First, Original Lord”). So, for what it’s worth, we have three very different references to the myth of the bird that fall into a nice sequential arrangement: 1 Ajaw – 2 Imix – 3 Ik’ – 4 Ak’bal – 5 K’an. I’m as yet unsure what this all means, but the pattern seems worth further consideration.

One interesting aspect of the Dallas Bone’s design is the careful arrangement of the text within the scene. The four glyphs above the headdress provide the date (5 Kan End of Yaxk’in) and the main verb (k’ahlaj, “it was fastened…”). Then the text passes over to the floating glyph at far left, labeling the headdress (? hu’n), before it continuing down to the three glyphs above the image of the seated recipient, reading t-u-baah Lem ? Ixiim?, “…upon the head of Shiny-?-Maize(?).” It’s a fine example of an artist’s carefully considered integration of text and image.

The inscription:

5-“K’AN” / TI’-HAAB / YAX-K’IN-ni / K’AL-ja / ?-HU’N-na / tu-BAAH-hi / LEM?-?-IXIIM?

Jo’ K’an(?) (u-)ti’-haab Yaxk’in k’ahlaj ? hu’n t-u-baah Lem(?) ? Ixiim

(On the day) Five K’an the ‘end’ of Yaxk’in, the ? headdress is fastened upon the head of Shiny-?-Maize(?).