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.

REPORT: Two Inscribed Bones from Yaxchilan 5

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

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

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

YAX bones1BONE 1:

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

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


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

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

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

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

O Chahk

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Diadems in the Rough 9

by Stephen Houston

The ritual role of paper is by now a commonplace in studies of Classic Maya royalty. Kings show their station by wearing headbands, presumably made from the cortex of the strangler fig or amate (Ficus sp.), kopo’ in some Mayan languages.(Note 1)

Much could be written about Classic paper. There is the matter of its manufacture with “bark beaters.” Lashed to wooden handles, these grooved tools helped to mash and fuse fibers for eventual smoothing, sizing with lime-powder, and painting.(Note 2) Epigraphers might pay more attention to the reading of “paper” in Maya texts: hu’n, a term cueing “book,” “headband,” even “diadem” or “crown.” (Note 3) (The material came first, other meanings later.) Yet not all head coverings were Ficus. Some years ago, Michael Coe noted the probable use of henequen fibers in some headdresses (Coe 1973:49). An uncomfortable material, perhaps, but it was also durable, shapable, dramatic in effect, light to wear.

Two glyphic spellings indicate a third material for headgear. A paper, hu’n, it nonetheless seems to consist of something other than Ficus. One example occurs on Aguateca Stela 1, dating to AD 741 (Fig. 1; Graham 1967:fig. 3). The text offers an

Fig. 1. Figure 1. Aguateca Stela 1:A7, with close-up of royal headband (Graham 1967:figs. 2, 3).

unusual lead-up to the accession of a ruler, K’awiil Chan K’inich of Aguateca and Dos Pilas, by referring to an act of ka-cha-ji u-sa-ya-HU’N. The root is doubtless related to “tying,” kach, an event entirely appropriate for a headband (Grube 1992:213). In this spelling, the hu’n itself is visible as a paper bow. The reference comes 22 days prior to enthronement and may represent the pre-accession tying of a headband or the preparation of regalia for the ceremony. Another spelling is on the famed “Princeton Vase” at the Princeton Art Museum (Fig. 2; K511; Coe 1978:pl. 1). An ‘a-sa-ya HU’N-na is clearly visible at positions L2-K3, although the context is opaque. The caption, alluding to a person—note the agentive ‘a (or is it a pronoun, “your”?)—may refer to the scene of God L and his harem.

Figure 2. Princeton Vase, close up of caption (Coe 1978:pl. 1, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

What can be made of these references to hu’n, once in secure connection to regalia and accession to high office?

An ethnography of the Q’eqchi’ Maya draws attention to a sedge, a grass or rush-like plant known as say (Cyperus sp.; Wilson 1972: 148, 169, 260, Table 19): “Today the principal fiber plant apart from ik’e (maguey) is a sedge, saySay is used by plaiting rather than spinning; the three faces of the stem are split apart and woven into fine mats (sayil pōp) on which to sit or sleep.” Use of say appears to have been gendered among the Q’eqchi’, as it was worked only by women. Say produces a finer product than other plaited or twilled materials, and the Ch’orti’, too, made full use of it (Wisdom 1940:153-154; yet note Ch’orti’ pohp’ for “sedge”). Ground up and mixed with oil for poultice, the sedge was employed by Ch’orti’ midwives, at least until the 1930s, to heal the umbilical wounds of babies (Wisdom 1940:288): soothing, applicable at a key moment in life’s passage. Colonial Yukatek refers to the same material, as in the Calepino Motul: “Çay [say] el coraçón o junco de que hazen petates o esteras” or “the heart or rush from which petates or mats are made” (Cuidad Real 2001:136).

There is another possibility too. Colonial and recent Tzotzil mention a tree called saya-vun [hun], “saya-paper,” a wild mulberry (Morus celtidfolia; Breedlove and Laughlin 2000: 142, 153). A plant from a related plant, like Ficus and the mulberry in the Moraceae family, was commonly used in Polynesia for tapa cloth and throughout Asia as the basis of a resilient and valued paper (Seelenfreund et al. 2010). What is striking in the image on Aguateca Stela 1 is that a lashing around the forehead is cross-hatched. This is either because it is dark—a common Maya convention—or because it renders a rougher, more textured material (Fig. 1).

The Classic Maya wove, plaited, twilled, and otherwise joined materials from the vegetal world around them. Two glyphic examples suggest that some such works were labeled as “paper” yet from fibers that were coarser and tougher than Ficus. Truly: diadems in the rough. A second option is that, as in Asia and Polynesia, where the tradition had great antiquity, the Maya transformed mulberry into a high-quality paper for ritual use.


Note 1. A useful paper by Erik Boot highlights a pot with a text reading, in part, u-ko-po-lo che-‘e-bu (Boot 1997: 64-67, fig. 4, photographed by Justin Kerr as K7786). Boot proposes u-po-ko-lo, from a root meaning “wash,” for the first glyph block. I might suggest a different order, with signs that sequence from upper left to lower left, then pass from upper right to lower right. The relevance here is that kopol could be an adjectival reference to amate, kopol, in connection to che’b, “quill, brush.” Thus, “fig-tree-quill.” Whatever the interpretation, the presence of the term in a name-tag remains enigmatic—at least we know that the owner of this bowl served a higher-ranking ajaw. In my view, a second example noted by Boot, MT347, from Burial 160 at Tikal, possibly with po-ko-lo, is fragmentary and the context uncertain. I am unsure how it relates to the spelling on K7786.

Note 2. For controversy about such objects, there is no beating Paul Tolstoy on barkbeaters, which he understood in pan-diffusionist terms (Tolstoy 1963, 1981). The first discussion of such objects appears in Uhle (1889-90), likening New World examples to comparable pieces from Sulawesi.

Note 3. Excellent discussion of the phonology and glyphic spellings appears in Grube (2004: 65-66, 73). In 1986, Don Federico Fahsen showed me two texts in Guatemala, both from the early years of the Late Classic period, both painted in similar style if not by the same hand. I immediately noticed a sign alternation of the sort that is so productive in decipherment. The number “one” alternated in crisp pattern with a sign combination that, in Glyph F of the inscriptions, represented a Maya book (this last identification was made with great style and insight by Michael Coe [1977]). The unavoidable conclusion, for those ceramics, at the time of their painting: the word for “one,” jun, was a near-homophone of the term for “book,” hu’n. The phonological details of the words were less clear in the 1980s. Now, I would read “one” as juun, “book” or “paper” as hu’n, following the evidence and reasoning in Robertson et al. (2007:7, 48). The scribe or atelier producing these ceramics would have been unusually expansive in their embrace of homophony.

Sources Cited

Boot, Erik. 1997. Classic Maya Vessel Classification: Rare Vessel Type Collocations Containing the Noun Cheb “Quill.” Estudios de historia social y económica de America, vol. 15, pp. 59-76.’Quill’.pdf

Breedlove, Dennis E., and Robert M. Laughlin. 2000. The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán. Abridged edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Ciudad Real, Antonio de. 2001. Calepino Maya de Motul, edición crítica y anotada por Réne Acuña. Plaza y Valdés Editores, México, DF.

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

___________. 1977. Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and Artists. In Social Process in Maya Prehistory: Studies in Honour of Sir Eric Thompson, ed. by N. Hammond, pp. 327-347. Academic Press, London.

___________. 1978. Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton.

Graham, Ian. 1967. Archaeological Explorations in El Peten, Guatemala. Middle American Research Institute, Publication 33. Tulane University, New Orleans.

Robertson, John, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, Number 62.

Grube, Nikolai. 1992. Classic Maya Dance: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography. Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 3, pp. 201-218. 2004. The Orthographic Distinction between Velar and Glottal Spirants in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, The Linguistics of Maya Writing, ed. by Søren Wichmann, pp. 61-81. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Tolstoy, Paul. 1963. Cultural Parallels between Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica in the Manufacture of Bark-cloth. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 25, pp. 646–662.

__________. 1991. Paper route: Were the Man the Manufacture and Use of Bark Paper Introduced into Mesoamerica from Asia? Natural History, vol. 100, no. 6, pp. 6-8, 10, 12-14.

Seelenfreund, D., A. C. Clarke, N. Oyanedel, R. Piña, S. Lobos, E.A. Matisoo-Smith, and A. Seelenfreund. 2010. Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) as a Commensal Model for Human Mobility in Oceania: Anthropological, Botanical, and Genetic considerations. New Zealand Journal of Botany, vol. 48, pp. 3-4, 231-247.

Uhle, Max, 1889–90. Kultur und Industrie südamerikanischer Völker. A. Ascher, Berlin.

Wilson, Michael R. 1972. A Highland Maya People and Their Habitat: The Natural History, Demography, and Economy of the K’ekchi’. Ph.D. dissertation, Dept. of Geography, University of Oregon.

Wisdom, Charles. 1940. The Chorti Maya of Guatemala. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

A Liquid Passage to Manhood 6

by Stephen Houston

A few years ago I proposed that some of the most celebrated Maya vases were commissioned for young men in Classic society (Houston 2009: 166). My thoughts at the time: “pots with such labels could have been bestowed in the setting of age-grade rituals or promotions, a recognition of feasting and expensive drinks as markers of adult status, even trophies and material honours while in page service, ballplay or war.” The notion appealed to me on behalf of all those ungainly, ever-changing youth in past and present times—as a set, the boys and young men could be seen as an unexpected aesthetic locus, a target for what was arguably the summit of ceramic painting in the ancient New World. But this idea involved a second, very specific expectation. The painted vessels so-named and so-possessed would involve not only young men but youths at times of change, on transit through the rites of passage so familiar to comparative anthropology.

A fresh piece of evidence lends weight to this conjecture. An eroded and shattered cylindrical vessel in the Juan Antonio Valdés Museum in Uaxactun, Guatemala, contains the usual Primary Standard Sequence. The glyphs have a cadenced coloration of two red-painted glyphs followed by one left uncolored. This scheme recalls the Primary Standard Sequences on such luminous vessels as a bowl from the area of Tikal, now in the Museo Popol Vuh (Kerr #3395; the presence of Jasaw Chan K’awiil’s name on the bowl brackets it temporally to AD 682 ~ 734; see also K #595). The vessel in Uaxactun has the following sequence, somewhat occluded by the darkness of the photographs I have seen: ….u-tz’i ba-IL yu-k’i-bi ti-YAX-CH’AHB ch’o-ko AJ-?BAHLAM che-he-na SAK-MO’-‘o ?-?…., the final glyphs surely the name of the painter. Figure 1 reproduces a key passage, the name of the drinking vessel (yuk’ib), just before an expression ti yax ch’ahb, “for the first fast/penance(?).” Then, crucially, the name of the owner, a ch’ok or “youth.”

Figure 1. Passage on a vessel in the Juan Antonio Valdés Museum (drawing by author).

As Stuart and others have noted, the yax ch’ahb refers to a rite of passage for young males, perhaps most eloquently in a text from Caracol Stela 3 (Stuart 2008; also Houston et al. 2006: 131-132, fig. 3.30). There, a young prince, only a few months beyond 5 years of age, underwent this arduous rite. It formed part of his first bloodletting but probably involved much other pain besides, including the denial of food. The import is clear: the vessel at Uaxactun was intended specifically for an age-grade ritual, the first (presumably) of many sacrificial offerings from a noble youth. Did it offer a filling and restorative draft of liquid after penance? Was it a gift to others who might witness his ascent to adult duty? Of these matters we cannot be certain. But the likelihood is now stronger that most such vessels marked and materialized shifts of status: a liquid passage from boyhood to the obligations of elite men.


Houston, Stephen. 2009. A Splendid Predicament: Young Men in Classic Maya Society. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19 (2): 149-178.

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

Stuart, David. 2008. A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela. Maya Decipherment weblog

On Effigies of Ancestors and Gods 3

This post offers a few speculative thoughts on the glyph shown at right that’s long eluded any firm decipherment, but which for many years now has been thought to refer to an important type of ritual object or space, such as an altar or shrine. In fact, in the epigraphic literature of the past couple of decades it has often simply been glossed as “stone altar.” Here I would like to offer a somewhat different interpretation and suggest that it might better be interpreted as a term referring to a more specific sort of object known as an effigy incense burner. These remarkable and ornate ceramics are elaborated vessels, with lids that assume the form fully three dimensional portraits of historical ancestors or deities. They have been found at a number of sites, perhaps most notably at Copan, Palenque and Tikal, often in funerary contexts. It is clear that these elaborate objects were imposing ritual props, even sometimes nearly monumental in scale.

Fig. 1. Copan, Altar Q, with upper text passage noting the dedication of an object associated with the dynastic founder. (Photograph and drawing by D. Stuart)

We begin with the famous Altar Q at Copan (Fig. 1), a large box-shaped stone commemorating the dynastic founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, and his royal successors. The inscription atop the altar is best known for mentioning of the arrival of the founder, but toward the end we come to the record of then-contemporary events, including the dedication of an important monument or object under the auspices of Ruler 16, Yax Pahsaj Chan Yopaat.    Interestingly, this item was “owned” or pertained to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, by them deceased for nearly four centuries.  The glyph for this object (ya-?-la) has long eluded decipherment, but we have always assumed it stands in reference to either the altar itself, or perhaps even to the pyramid before which Altar Q was placed, Temple 16. In any event, it is important to note that the elusive term is for some sort of commemorative “thing” that is “of” K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’.

Fig. 2. Opening section of the Temple Inscription from Str. 10L-26 at Copan (Drawing by D. Stuart).

The same glyph appears again at Copan on the Temple Inscription, from the upper shrine of Structure 10L-26, the temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway (Fig. 2). There, in beautiful full-figure glyphs, we read of another fashioning (the verb pa-ta-wa-ni at block a4) of the same class of object on 5 Imix 4 Kayab, and that it was “of the lord” or “of the lords” (ya-?-la-AJAW at block a6). This reference is vague, but given the parallel with Altar Q we might speculate that the term again refers to an ancestor or collectively to a group of ancestors. Importantly, Structure 10L-26 was also a major funerary monument at Copan, built by Rulers 13 and 15 above the tomb of Ruler 12.  Ruler 12 died on and was placed in his tomb 14 days afterwards. The funerary stairway above the tomb was built by his son many years later on, possibly in association with the Esmeralda construction phase of the pyramid.  But the question is: what was made or dedicated in connection with this temple four years before the stairway, and over a decade after Ruler 12’s death? A building? An altar? No evidence exists of a major construction episode in 10L-26 between the times the tomb was placed and the large Esmeralda pyramid and its stairway were built above it, suggesting that the area around Ruler 12’s tomb was very accessible for a number of years. At any rate, the pattern suggests also that the glyph in question is probably not an architectural term (like “shrine,” for example).

A third occurrence of the same glyph perhaps appears in another Copan temple, Structure 10L-11. There it appears on the west jamb of the temple’s north dorrway in connection with the date 8 Eb 10 Zip, again with a “make” or “fashion” (pat-wan) event.  In this case, its “owner” is named as Ruler 15, who died some six years earlier and who may be buried under Temple 11’s superstructure.  Here once more we find our mystery term associated with a verb of “making” and owned by an ancestral figure.

Fig. 3. Passage from Quirigua, Zoomorph P. (Drawing by M. Looper)

Moving from Copan to nearby Quirigua, a similar pattern seems to be at work. The inscription of Zoomorph P records the Period Ending, at which time the local ruler “scatters incense” at a temple called the “13 Kawak House” (Fig. 3). This is in all likelihood one of the principal buildings in Quirigua’s acropolis, directly behind (to the south of) the monument (According to Zoomorph G this same “13 Kawak House” is where the great Quirigua Ruler K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat was buried). The Zoomorph P inscription goes on to say that the incense ritual (chok ch’aaj) was performed on or with regard to the “object” of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, as well as, it seems, with the same “object” of Ruler 13 of Copan. This is a remarkable statement, for Ruler 13 had earlier been the war captive of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and was sacrificed at or near Quirigua in 736 A.D., decades before the zoomorph itself was dedicated in 795. Here, both the Quirigua king and his illustrious prisoner were associated with the same type of commemorative object mentioned three times at Copan, and again we find it in direct association with deceased kings and ancestors.

Turning to Palenque, we find that the same hieroglyph occurs in the tablets of the Temple of the Inscriptions, in the passages that record complex dressing rites associated with the three gods of the Palenque Triad. Chief among these was the tying of paper-cloth headbands (sakhu’n), headdresses (ko’haw) and jewels (tup) upon what must we can only presume to be effigy figures of the these deities, as Martha Macri (1988, 1997) and others suggested some years ago. A summary statement of the rites appears near the beginning of the west tablet (Fig. 4), where we have the simple mention that:

Fig. 4. Passage pertaining to the "headband-binding" on effigies of the three gods of the Palenque Triad. PAL, TI, west, B3-B6. (Drawing by L. Schele)

u k’alhu’n y-a..?..l u k’uh-ul

“It is the paper-binding of the ? of his gods …”

Here once more the glyph in question is a possessed noun associated with venerated figures, in this instance the gods of the Palenque Triad.

So what can this glyphic term actually mean? A few telling clues stand out thus far:

(1) The glyph must somehow refer to a class of commemorative object associated with deceased ancestral figures as well as deities.

(2) It can be “made” or “fashioned,” as revealed by its association with the verb pat.

(3) Specific actions associated with this object involve ritual dressing with paper-cloth (Palenque) and adornment with headgear and jewels. Significantly, they are also in some manner involved in incense rituals (Quirigua).

(4) The term has close ties to funerary temples at Copan and possibly at Quirigua, in direct connection to historical ancestors.

Taken together, one is tempted to think that the glyph refers to ritual statuary or figural representation, and perhaps more specifically to effigy incense burners. Such objects are known in Maya archaeology of course, perhaps the most spectacular examples being the ornate figural incensarios unearthed near Ruler 12’s tomb at Copan, inside Structure 10L-26. These objects were dressed and bejeweled (note the ear holes, etc.), and as burners were obviously used in important incense rites. The Copan censers represent all of the kings up to and including Ruler 12 himself, and so they fit well with the pattern of ancestral commemoration. And use of the verb pat would seem appropriate for this sort of object, given its known meaning in connection to the manufacture of ceramic objects (Yukatek pat kum, “hacer ollas”). And as we’ve seen, the mention of the “fashioning” of our mystery object in the Temple Inscription of Stucture 26 seems in some way to be connected with Ruler 12’s tomb. Might it specifically refer to the making of these effigy incensarios? It’s a tantalizing connection to ponder.

So, some general conclusions and speculations:

– Altar Q at Copan may refer to the dedication of an effigy censer in the form of the great ancestral ruler K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. If so, the altar itself was likely intended as a pedestal or platform for its display, in front of his funerary temple.

– Copan’s Structure 10L-11 refers to the manufacture of a possible effigy censer of Ruler 15.  This was perhaps intended to be displayed on the platform in the center of the north-south passageway of the temple, framed by the snake-centipede “maw” carved into the wall at either side.

– Quirigua’s Zoomporph P refers to the incense rite involving the effigy censers of two historical figures: K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat as well as Ruler 13 of Copan, in association with the former’s funerary temple in the acropolis.

– In the case of Palenque, I suspect that some local variety of deity censer was mentioned in the Temple of the Inscriptions, each representing one of the Triad gods and ritually adorned as part of the calendar ceremonies performed by K’inich Janab Pakal.

Fig. 5. Two of the twelve ruler effigies (censer lids) found outside of Ruler 12's tomb in Copan's Structure 10L-26.

With Structre 26 of Copan, the making of the “? of the lord(s)” may well refer to the censers discovered outside of Ruler 12’s tomb (Fig. 5). The rather anonymous and general ajawterm seems unlike any other example discussed, leading me to think it is a collective reference to the twelve ancestors. My tentative conclusion is that the Copan effigy ancestors were made collectively on, and that they together served for a few years as important objects of ritual veneration, perhaps at the site of Ruler 12’s tomb or somewhere else in the acropolis.  At the time of the construction of Esmeralda, these were terminated around the tomb’s exterior, and buried in the construction fill for the more grandiose funerary temple that the son had designed for his father.

I’ll close with a brief word on the glyph’s possible phonetic reading. The main clue in the decipherment of the central compound sign is its ya- prefix, a clear indication that the possessed noun begins with the vowel a-. The -la suffix on the glyph likely marks a -Vl ending on the possessed noun, so we ought to look for a noun root that begins with the vowel a- and fits this semantic context, having some connection with burning, incense, or effigy forms.

The element atop our mystery glyph (T174) is part of a main sign that still resists a firm phonetic decipherment, but it is important to note that the same element also appears with another logogram (T174:T704) with the value SABAK or SIBIK, “soot, ash” — a reading proposed a number of years ago by Nikolai Grube. Interestingly, another widespread Mayan term with much the same meaning is abak, “soot, charcoal, ash.” I do wonder if the logogram at the heart of the supposed “effigy” glyph might eventually prove to be ABAK, producing ya-ABAK-la, for y-abak-al, “its soot.” The semantics might have been extended somewhat to include the containers for burnt offerings, in the forms of ash-filled effigy censers. A different possibility worth considering is that the ya- sign prefix signals the presence of the agentive prefix aj- before a still obscure root, so that the possessed noun referring to effigy figures is aj-?.

The phonetic reading still remains elusive, yet the semantic domain of the noun in question seems much firmer in its connection to effigy figures and burners, ritual objects that were of great importance in ancient Maya ceremonial practice.


Macri, Martha. 1997. Noun Morphology and Possessive COnstructions in Old Palenque Ch’ol. In The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, edited by M. J. Macri and A. Ford, pp. 89-95. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.