Cotton, Snow, and Distant Wonders

by David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Dedicated to our dear friend, Alfonso Lacadena

We seldom think of wintry wonderlands when considering mostly tropical Mesoamerican landscapes. But parts of the Maya highlands in Guatemala sometimes see very occasional snowfall during the winter months, always exciting curiosity and wonder, if not a little consternation and concern over crops (Figure 1). Whenever snow falls and coats the ground, public media must explain the phenomena to local readers, describing its distinction from hail (see Prensa Libre 4/21/2017; also Prensa Libre 12/18/2016). Recently, the national disaster agency (CONRED) even thought it necessary to report that snow can be “associated with precipitation and low temperatures” (Boletín Informativo No. 3046). While rare and noteworthy, snow was ever-present in a few select areas of the central Mexican highlands, atop prominent volcanic peaks such as Orizaba, Popocatépetl, and others.



Figure 1. A rare snowfall in Cerro Cotzic, Ixchiguan, San Marcos, Guatemala, Jan. 25, 2013 (Creative Commons 2.0 Generic). 


For those who have never experienced snow, it might come as a challenge to describe verbally its many sensations and textures — slushy, clump-flaked, powder-dry, and so on. Then there is the messy residue as it melts, along with its endurance, over months, at altitude or to the far north. At root, to show distant wonders or to talk about them is an imaginative task, drawing on all the tools of the story-teller and the wiles of visual artists. For this, analogies or metaphors work well, especially when distances are great and the unfamiliar acutely strange.

As one example, taking us closer to the Precolumbian past, an unknown maker of woodblock prints devised the first known European image of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Published, probably, in Augsburg, Germany, in 1522, it refers to the city of “dem konig Madotzoma…herr von grossen Venedig,” displaying the causeways or dikes of that city as arching bridges, sailboats passing underneath, and the many temples as turreted buildings (Figure 2; Newe Zeitung). Square-shoed burghers with hose stockings, flat caps, belt purses, and fur collars would have dumbfounded the Mexica Aztec they depict. But they do at least try to describe the unfamiliar. There are settlements like European ones (if walled and likened to Venice, a frequent comparison of the time, going back to Cortés and others [Kim 2006]), and people dressed in the everyday garb of Augsburg.


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Figure 2. Earliest European depiction of Tenochtitlan (Unknown 1522:5, John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI).


The Classic Maya may have been no different. Among the texts linked to contact with the civilization of Teotihuacan, and almost surely with Teotihuacan itself, is the famous  “Marcador” of Tikal, found during excavations overseen by Juan Pedro Laporte south of the Mundo Perdido Group (Figure 3, Laporte and Fialko 1995:66–70). This object is strikingly similar to so-called “ball markers” from Teotihuacan, ranging from one depicted in the murals of Tepantitla (perhaps a goalpost for a stick game) to a carving with separable components at La Ventilla; the latter is well-garnished with yet other cultural references, to the volutes of El Tajín, Veracruz (Solís 2009:#124). The semantic layering in these images and carvings is rich and only partly understood, as there must also have been a reference to standing, banner-like shields (e.g., Taube 2009:figs. 2b, c). The Tikal find, from Group 6C-XVI, potentially bears another link to ballplay. A large raised area nearby, thought by earlier investigators to be a natural hill, is revealed by LiDAR to be eerily close in orientation and layout, if at halved-scale, to the Ciudadela at Teotihuacan (processing and interpretation by Houston and Thomas Garrison of Ithaca College). As if by cue, the Ciudadela has just been shown to contain, in an earlier phase of its existence, a large ballcourt (Gómez Chávez and Gazzola 2015).



Figure 3. Tikal Marcador, Group 6C-XVI, on display in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala (photographer unknown). 


In part, the historical links between Tikal and Teotihuacan (or its proxies) have been understood for some time (Proskouriakoff 1993:8–9; Stuart 2000; see also Martin and Grube 2000:29–31). An enigmatic personage whose name was probably Sihyaj K’ahk’, “Born from Fire” (coming from a fiery war dart to boot), “arrived” (huliiy) or “completed” a journey (tzutzyi) to Tikal on 11 Eb 15 Mac in the Maya calendar, or Jan. 16, AD 378 in the Maya-Christian correlation we favor. His presence was clearly martial, as indicated by the Marcador glyph that situates the arrival in terms of conquest, using the familiar term och ch’een, “to cave-enter”  Most likely too, Sihyaj K’ahk’ galvanized or even reorganized the political geography of much of what is now northern Guatemala. Every few years or so a new reference to him comes to light, suggesting that many more are to be found (e.g., Estrada-Belli et al. 2009; Stuart 2014; note that the Maya could also hint at later ambivalence about Teotihuacanos [Houston et al. 2016]).1

The Marcador text is relevant for another reason. In addition to the “arrival,” which highlights the first part of the inscription, the second side of the monument reaches back to two dates: (1) May 5, AD 374 [, 11 Ajaw *3 Wayeb, an unusual, perhaps dire date, presumably, as it falls in the five final days of the year], the evident accession of another figure associated with Teotihuacan, “Spearthrower [ja-tz’o?-ma] Owl” (Martin 2003:13; Stuart 2000:483); and (2) Jan. 24, AD 414 [, 12 Muluk 12 K’ank’in], the dedication of Marcador itself (Figure 4).


Fig. 4.png

Figure 4.  Tikal Marcador, E1–H9 (rubbing provided by Juan Pedro Laporte, with heightened contrast). 


In part, the Marcador remains a highly opaque text. Yet an apparent place name tied to Spearthrower Owl contains recognizable elements, including the number 5, a glyph known since the time of Eric Thompson to represent the downy texture of “cotton” (Thompson 1972:83–83), a syllabic ma (shown in its fuller form, as a prefix and suffix framing the main sign), and the well-known WITS, “hill, mountain” (Figure 5). Thus: the “5 ‘something’ Hills/Mountains,” and as locations or a single place affiliated in some way with a person tied to Teotihuacan or its proxies.


5 snow mountains

Figure 5. Place name associated with Spearthrower Owl, Tikal Marcador, E4, G6 (drawings by Linda Schele).


The one undeciphered sign is probably a representation of “cotton.” The rows of small “u”-shapes are standard in Mesoamerican art as markers for spun cotton or cotton as shown by iconographic clues assembled by Karl Taube and others (e.g., Taube 1993:657). In Maya art we also see the same “u”-shapes on cloth, as on the panel fragment from Palenque shown in Figure 6, depicting the ruler K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb aiding with what might be a cotton bundle containing tribute goods (Stuart 1998:413).


PAL tribute panel

Figure 6. Panel fragment from Palenque, showing large cloth tumpline bundle with “cotton” markings (Drawing by David Stuart).

John Dienhart suggested that the hieroglyphic sign with these same u-shapes reads NOK’, “clothes, cloth” (Dienhart 1986:53). Almost epigraphers have accepted, from multiple sets of evidence, a syllabic value of no, derived, following Dienhart’s lead, from nok’, “clothes, cloth” in Common Ch’olan (Kaufman and Norman 1984:127). The decipherment makes sense. It explains expressions with antipassive suffixes such as ‘a-AK’-no-maak’-n-oom, in the area of Cancuen (Príncipe Maya Panel:E5), ‘a-k’a-no-ma, ak’-n-oom, at Palenque (Temple of the Inscriptions, West Tablet:C6) or the “shaker” title employed frequently by later rulers of Calakmul (yu-ku-no-ma, yuk-n-oom, Martin 2017).

Dienhart may have been both wrong and right: wrong because the “cotton” sign, as a logograph, was perhaps incorrectly deciphered as NOK’ (“cloth”), but right because it did correspond to a word for “cotton.” The logical candidate we propose here is tinam, read TINAM as a glyph, a term well-attested as meaning “cotton” in Common Ch’olan and all its descendant languages (Norman and Kaufman 1984:132). On the Marcador, the term explains the ma syllable—here serving as a reinforcement for TINAM. A no syllable would not account for this usage, yet there can be little doubt that, as a visual form, the glyph corresponds to that fluffy substance.

There may even be a more general protocol in place for generating signs. A Maya innovator (it is hard to see this as anything other than a singular, intentional act) first extracted a syllable no from nok’, the former no longer having any meaning. The scribe then used that sign to record a distinct if conceptually related term, one for the material itself. The motivating word had been left behind, to be replaced in logographic usage by another, loosely linked term. To our knowledge, a “fish” sign, a ka syllable, never references its motivating word, kay, a to syllable fails to deliver tok, “cloud, fog,” and so on. One of the few exceptions may be bi and BIH, “road,” a handy term for a people who liked to move in processions and on various journeys.

But why “cotton” mountains? Why “5” of them, why the tie to Teotihuacanos? And how is this an evocative, analogical description, of the unfamiliar made familiar to readers in a tropical zone?

Central Mexico, the general setting for Teotihuacan, is a far colder place than steamy Tikal, Guatemala. Peaks in visible range of Teotihuacan—at least in times prior to urban pollution—are girt with snow, some of it seasonal, some few examples perennial. A poetic analogy for someone describing this distant, fantastical land might be to reach for the familiar (cotton) to picture the radically foreign (snow). The scribe composing the Marcador text, masterfully proficient in Maya writing, knew much about Spearthrower Owl’s civilization—the text of the Marcador contains several non-Maya signs, and the overall carving exhibits many Teotihuacano elements. It may thus have been referring to a place he had not visited but could describe in terms of fluffy white “down” on high mountains, five of them in fact, perhaps Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, Orizaba, and others. (One of the authors [Stuart] is collaborating with David Carballo in a future study that will consider these specific connections in more detail.)

The analogy might have been familiar in parts of Mexico. In Oaxaca, the Codex Nuttall, a Mixtec pictorial book from the 14th century, portrays a couple between two peaks (Figure 7). They are a pair, Lady 1 Flower and Lord 1 Jaguar, who founded a particular Mixtec dynasty (Anders et al. 1992:108). Cotton marks, a spread of small “u”-shapes, cover and streak down the peaks, and a small cotton spool at the base of the mountain to the right both accentuates this conceit and employs, according to one interpretation, a Mixtec homophone, yuhua, “cotton spool” or “snow” (Anders et al. 1992:107fn5). A commentary on the Nuttall describes these as the “Montes Nevados” (the snowy mountains), and possibly as a particular location, Icpantepec Nieves in the Mixteca Baja of Oaxaca, Mexico (Anders et al. 1992:33). Snow may have been as unfamiliar to them as to the Lowland Maya of the Early Classic period, but, as on the Marcador, they invoked a metaphor that worked with wit to excite the imagination.


Nuttall 11.png

Figure 7. “Cotton-covered” mountains, possibly Icpantepec Nieves, Mixteca Baja, Codex Nuttall, p. 11, detail, British Museum ADD.MSS 39671 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0). 


  1. In 1983 or so, Houston saw another text referring to Sihyaj K’ahk’. It was on an exquisitely inlaid shell in the temporary keeping of Gordon Ekholm, then a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Etched lightly with glyphs, the shell displayed areas of jade and Spondylus, inserted by some clay-like adhesive into drilled areas of the surface. A scene of emergence, with a single head looking upwards through a symmetrical effusion of foliage, served as the principal image. At the time, Houston made a quick sketch of the text, including an evident statement of overlordship by Sihyaj K’ahk’. The object, considerably damaged by erosion in its hollow, has since disappeared. It may have been in the process of evaluation by Ekholm and his associate, Robert Sonin, an authenticator and former curator at the Brooklyn Museum, who came to Ekholm’s office during Houston’s visit.

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Acknowledgements  This essay has benefitted greatly from discussions with David Carballo, Karl Taube, and Marc Zender.



Anders, Ferdinand, Maarten Jansen, and Gabina A. Pérez Jiménez. 1992. Crónica Mixteca: El rey 8 Venado, Garra de Jaguar, y la la dinastía de Teozacualco-Zaachila, libro explicativo del llamado Códice Zouche-Nuttall, Ms. 39671 British Museum, Londres. Madrid/Graz/Mexico City: Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario/Akademische Druck-u. Verlagsanstalt/Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Aveleyra Arroyo de Anda, Luis. 1963. La Estela teotihuacana de La Ventilla. Cuadernos del Museo Nacional de Antropología I. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México.

Beliaev, Dmitri, David Stuart, and Camilo A. Luin. 2017. Late Clasic Maya Vase with the Mention of Sihyaj K’ahk’ from the Museo VICAL, Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua Guatemala. Mexicon XXXIX(1):1–4.

Dienhart, John M. 1986. The Mayan Glyph for Cotton. Mexicon 8(3):52–56.

Estrada-Belli, Francisco, Alexandre Tokovinine, Jennifer Foley, Heather Hurst, Gene Ware, David Stuart, and Nikolai Grube. 2009. A Maya Palace at Holmul, Peten, Guatemala and the Teotihuacan ‘Entrada’: Evidence from Murals 7 and 9. Latin American Antiquity 20(1):228–259.

Gómez Chávez, Sergio, and Julie Gazzola. 2015. Una posible cancha de juego de pelota en el área de la ciudadela, Teotihuacan. Anales de Antropología 49(10):113–133.

Houston, Stephen, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube. 2016. Xenophobia and Grotesque Fun. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Xenophobia

Kaufman, Terrence, and William M. Norman. 1984. An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology and Vocabulary. In Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Publication 9, eds. John. S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, 77–166. Albany: State University of New York.

Kim, David Y. 2006. Uneasy Reflections: Images of Venice and Tenochtitlan in Benedetto Bordone’s Isolario. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 49/50:81–92.

Laporte, Juan Pedro, and Vilma Fialko. 1995. Un reencuentro con Mundo Perdido, Tikal, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 6(1):41–94.

Martin, Simon. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, ed. Jeremy A. Sabloff, 3–45. Santa Fe/Oxford: School of American Research Press/James Curry.

Martin, Simon. 2017. Secrets of the Painted King List: Recovering the Early History of the Snake Dynasty. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Secrets

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames and Hudson.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1993. Maya History. Rosemary Joyce, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Solís, Felipe (ed.). 2009. Teotihuacan, Cité des Dieux. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly.

Stuart, David. 1998. ‘The Fire Enters His House’: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts.” In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, ed. S. D. Houston, 373–425. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Stuart, David. 2000. ‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, eds. D. Carrasco, L. Jones, and S. Sessions, 465–513. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Stuart, David. 2014. Naachtun’s Stela 24 and the Entrada of 378. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Naachtun’s Stela 24

Taube, Karl A. 1994. The Birth Vase: Natal Imagery in Ancient Maya Myth and Ritual. In The Maya Vase Book, Volume 4, ed. Justin Kerr650–685. New York: Kerr Associates.

Taube, Karl. 2009. La religion à Teotihuacan. In Teotihuacan, Cité des Dieux, ed. Felipe Solís, 152–159. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1972. A Commentary on the Dresden Codex: A Maya Hieroglyphic Book. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 93. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Unknown. 1522. Newe Zeittung. Von dem Lande. Das die Sponier funden haben ym 1521. Iare genant Jucatan.; Newe Zeittung vo[n] Prussla, vo[n] Kay: Ma: Hofe 18 Martze. 1522.; Newe Zceyt von des Turcken halben von Offen geschrieben. Augsburg? [John Carter Brown Library, J522 .N543z]


The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings Reply


January 9-13, 2018

The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings are coming soon! Please join us in Austin next month for our stimulating series of workshops and our two-day symposium, focused on “Mesoamerican Philosophies.” Registration for the Meso Meetings is open to the public and all are welcome. Presenters include Chris Beekman, Linda Brown, David Carrasco, Michale Carrasco, Andrew Finegold, Patrick Hajovsky, Chrisptophe Helmke, Lucia Henderson, Julie Hogarth, Nick Hopkins, Zack Hruby, Danny Law, Elliot Lopez-Finn, Leonardo López Luján, James Maffie, Barbara Macleod, Alexus McLeod, Osiris Sinuhe Gonzalez Romero, David Stuart, Alex Tokovinine, Karl Taube, and Marc Zender.

Workshops, Symposium Program and Registration Information


Forty years ago, in 1978, UT Austin hosted the first Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop by Linda Schele, and an institution was born. Over the years the annual event grew as an open and vibrant gathering of scholars, students and others, sharing in the newest research in (mostly) Maya art, archaeology and related disciplines. 2018 brings exciting new changes, marking not only the beginning of our third k’atun, but also our new identity as the UT Mesoamerica Meetings, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all Mesoamerican cultures. To celebrate our anniversary and our new direction, we will devote our 2018 conference to a novel topic: Mesoamerican Philosophies: Animate Matter, Metaphysics, and the Natural Environment.

Ancient Mesoamerican religion and worldview hinges on a special understanding of “matter” and the metaphysical expression of the sacred. The world and what inhabited it – landscapes, buildings, objects, illnesses, even time itself — were considered animate and “living” in some sense, creating a dynamic system of interactions and relationships between people, gods, and things. These ideas found a constant expression, at different scales, in the region’s art, imagery, architecture, and ritual deposits, yet it is fair to say that these elemental notions have not been organized as a cohesive philosophy in any systematic way. At the 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings scholars and students will bring ancient Mesoamerican philosophy and religion into sharper focus, looking at how the ancient Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican cultures communicated these important ideas, and developed many notions of their own. In short, the conference will be looking at some of the most foundational but least articulated concepts of a cohesive ancient Mesoamerican worldview.

Among the questions we will be asking are: How do we refine our picture of Mesoamerican ideas as a cohesive system, a philosophy that might be placed alongside other ancient traditions worldwide? How did Mesoamerican peoples represent and interact with “living” things, spaces, materials and landscapes to express their understanding of human action in an animate world? Can we come up with a more accurate idea of “animism” in describing aspects of the Mesoamerican worldview? In what ways do such ideas have direct bearing on archaeological interpretation? These are large issues, and other related questions will no doubt arise during the conference. We see it as the beginning of a new and necessary foray into defining Mesoamerican thought as a set of philosophical traditions with key repercussions in scholarly research and cultural understanding.

Workshops, Symposium Program and Registration Information

How to Identify Real Fakes: A User’s Guide to Mayan “Codices”

by Michael Coe (Yale University) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Forgeries have long been a scourge to archaeology and art history alike, rearing up whenever money mixes with “excessive desire and bad judgment” (Meyer 1973:103, see also Lapatin 2000:45). According to Ascanio Condivi, even Michelangelo got into the act by passing off one of his carvings as a valuable antiquity (Holroyd 1903:21–22). Yet fakes also serve as fascinating evidence in the history of crime, especially for that special con by which the cleverness of a forger matches wits with scholars.

Fakers may win for a time—think of the “Etruscan warriors” concocted by the brothers Pio and Alfonso Riccardi and later sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (von Bothmer and Noble 1961). But mostly they lose. No one can look today at van Meegeren’s banal paintings and think, as Hermann Göring did, that Vermeer had a hand in their making (Godley 1967). Scientific techniques play a role in separating fakes from genuine pieces, along with a systematic probing of provenience, outright confessions—proudly made in some cases (Beltracchi and Kunst)—and the mere fact that every generation draws on greater knowledge. Faking becomes harder and harder, and the myth, say, that a forger knows more than specialists in Maya art and writing is scarcely credible. The wise analyst must also ask the standard gumshoe questions: who was the victim, who the perpetrator, was there any intent to deceive, was harm done as a result (Chappell and Polk 2009:3, 16)?

There are, no doubt, works that continue to puzzle. The Getty Kouros, for example, is either a fake that deeply skews our understanding of Greek art or it is a revealing anomaly that shows our “imperfect understanding of what remains, and the limits of our perspectives, preconceptions, and comprehension” (Lapatin 2000:46). And then there are the stunningly terrible fakes that do not so much represent a “crisis of criteria” (Lapatin 2000:43), a tough decision to be made between competing claims, as obvious forgeries that would fool no scholar.

Think about Maya fakes. There are many of them (Eberl and Prager 2000; Eberl and Prem 2011), some published, to our amazement, in important traveling exhibits (Gallenkamp and Johnson 1985:pls. 62, 63, 69, 72, 74). A few have needed further research. Typically, the more challenging cases are colonial, with only a few purported signs or images of indigenous nature (Hanks 1992; Jones 1992). But, under hard scrutiny, they too eventually yield their secrets. As for “Pre-Columbian books,” the tell-tale indicator is whether they exist as a pastiche, a rough assortment of glyphs or pictures. Often in nonsensical order, and mostly lifted from well-known sources, the glyphs and images tumble out in combinations that are, to expert eyes, anachronistic, stylistically inconsistent or incoherent, and contrary to recent decipherments of Maya writing.

With Maya books, of which only four intact examples remain, there is no real “crisis of criteria.” Quite simply, the fakes are glaring, at times laughable: who would be fooled by them today? In truth, few scholars ever were. The first such studies were done by Frans Blom (1935a, 1935b; 1946) and by a sprinkling of others (Brainerd 1948; Wassén 1942).

The “codices” tend to have a number of attributes, including:

(1) recognizable day and month signs, sometimes interspersed with wishful squiggles intended to simulate glyphs (Figure 1; compare with Figure 3, below);


Figure 1. Comparison of faked codex with source image in Dresden 19a. 


(2) a crudely polished leather base, with follicles clearly evident, or on what appears to be amate (fig-tree bark) or even coconut fiber (Figures 2, 3);



Figure 2. Faked leather codex and source image (K594, photograph copyright Justin Kerr, used with permission).


(3) little to no confidence of line, the “hand” being ill-practiced in calligraphy (Figure 3);



Figure 3. Unpracticed handling of paint, illegible signs and crude leather base.

(4) overbold and liberal use of polychromy (Figure 4; see also Figure 5, from the Peabody Museum at Yale University);


Figure 4. Bright polychromy: source image to right, “Pellicer Vase,” Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer Cámara (photograph to right: Stephen Houston). 


Yale PM fake obverse.jpg

Figure 5. Garish polychromy on the Yale Peabody Museum Codex (photograph by Michael Coe); note also the copying from Dresden 56b.

(5) transparent copying from widely available sources, especially the Dresden Codex and sundry illustrations from general books.

A few of these examples will suffice. One smuggles in a poorly interpreted vulture from a page of the Dresden Codex (Figure 1). The hammock and courtly figures on the so-called “Pellicer vase” from the Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer Cámara, Villahermosa, Tabasco, transfer neatly to another “codex” (Figure 4; vase published in Covarrubias 1957), and a Late Classic image of a mythic figure from a polychrome vase excavated at Uaxactun Guatemala finds an inept copy on yet another leather codex (Figure 6). Mixing periods–—the mural dates to the late 300s, early 400s—the faker also quoted freely from the well-published Ratinlixul Vase, excavated in 1917 by Robert Burkitt near Chamá, Guatemala, and now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum (UPM No. NA 11701, Danien 1997:38, Fig. 1).

What is abundantly evident is the sheer laziness or uninventive mentality of forgers. Sylvanus Morley’s The Ancient Maya (1946), first edition, was a particularly generous source for them, as it contained a handy list of Maya day glyphs (fig. 18), month signs (fig. 19), glyphs for time periods (fig. 22), Initial Series (fig. 25), and thorough coverage of the Maya calendar (pp. 265–295). The Ratinlixul Vase had its own line drawing too (pl. 88b). Of slightly earlier date was the useful, inexpensive, and widely available edition of Maya codices by the Villacortas in Guatemala (Villacorta and Villacorta 1933).



Figure 6. Copy of images from Uaxactun and the Ratinlixul vase on a forged leather codex (photograph to lower left, copyright Justin Kerr, used with permission).

A final example shows how blatant such copying can be (Figure 6). This codex lifts half of the center ballcourt marker from Copan Ballcourt BII (excavated by Gustav Strømsvik in the 1930s), as well as a frontal image from Palenque’s Temple of the Skull (upper left) and a smattering of full-figure glyphs from Copan Stela D (center left; see Stuart Temple of the Skull); Maudslay 1889–1902:pl. 48).



Figure 6. Fake codex and, at center, image taken from Copan Ballcourt II, center marker (drawing by John Montgomery). 

A few of these documents are in institutions (American Museum of Natural History, no. 30–9530, in a gift of c. 1901–1904, from the Duc de Loubat [Glass 1975:204]; Peabody Museum, Yale University [No. 137880]; Världskulturmuseet, Göteborg [Glass 1975:305]), but most are only known to us by way of unsolicited communications or, for one manuscript, via a glossy facsimile published in Guatemala (Benítez 2005; said to be from Chichicastenango, Guatemala, it even has a supposed radiocarbon date of “BP 200 + 28,” which, by odd arithmetic, the author pushes back to “1650 A.D.” [Benítez 2005:4–5]). Most fakes had two episodes of preparation, beyond the painting itself. Immersion in dirt or (we suspect) cow patties provided the right patina, and then a hurried cleaning gave some visibility for the dupe being invited to purchase the book.

A striking element is that many share elaborate “origin” stories. As a random selection, these concern a now-deceased relative who had traveled in Mexico/Guatemala, etc., a stray find in a Maya town in Guatemala, caves, scuba-diving or, in an example seen by one of us (Houston) in Provo, Utah, an heir wishing to donate the manuscript to a worthy public institution. A few seem to have gone through the hands of the late Pablo Bush Romero, “Mexico’s distinguished diver, self-made scholar and restless millionaire-at-large” (Sports Illustrated 1964). The presence of others of far earlier date, as in that acquired by the Duc de Loubat, show multiple hands behind their manufacture: the temptation to fake such codices clearly had deep roots (Glass 1975:305–306; for the Duc, Loubat obituary). The Yale forgery is described on the museum website as: a “Maya codex purchased in Mexico City, 1905, from an old priest around the corner from the southeast corner of the Alameda. This codex was first shown in 1887; he then declined to sell it, but in 1905, having been so ill that both his legs were amputated, and not expecting to live longer, he offered to sell the codex (to a friend?) of his in Merida who was then a druggist. This codex was examined by Dr. Alfred Tozzer of Harvard University, who considered it a reproduction, partly because the…various day signs were not in the proper Maya order” (Yale codex).

At this point, one of us (Coe) has seen over a dozen such codices. All are supremely unconvincing to the trained eye. The inept painting, ignorance of Maya coloration, slavish (yet scrambled) copying of well-known sources, anachronisms, inattention to decipherments, improvised, ad hoc “signs,” rough preparation and obvious attempts at artificial aging—all characterize these examples, without exception. It is unthinkable that any in this corpus of pictorial failure would pass muster, technical analysis or glyphic and iconographic exegesis.

To understand what is not a fake, as in the Grolier Codex (Coe et al. 2015), we are well-advised to study what is a fake. This rogues’ gallery shows that compelling deceptions of ancient Maya books are easier to claim than to create.



Benítez, Henry. 2005. Códice Chugüilá (1650 d.C.). Guatemala: Editorial Piedra Santa.

Blom, Frans. 1935a. A Checklist of Falsified Maya Codices. Maya Research 2(3):251–252.

______. 1935b. The ‘Gomesta Manuscript’, A Falsification. Maya Research 2(3):233–248.

______. 1946. Forged Maya Codex. The Masterkey 20:18.

Brainerd, George W. 1948. Another Falsified Maya Codex. The Mastery 22:17–18.

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Forgetting Chocolate: Spouted Vessels, Coclé, and the Maya

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)


The Romans and the Greeks before them cherished the taste of a particular resin. Tapped from silphium, a wild plant growing along the coast of North Africa, the flavoring went well with roast meat, brought savor to tripe, udder, and sow’s womb, partnered nicely with vegetables, salted tuna, and sea squirt (an invertebrate anchored to ocean floors), helped digestion, and even went into eye-drops (Dalby 2000:17–19). But its popularity and fussy conditions of growth undid the plant. Grazing sheep displaced its natural habitat, and the last root went down the gullet of the Emperor Nero (Dalby 2000:18).

Beloved foods come and go. How many Europeans still consume garum, that smelly fish sauce—Pliny the Elder called it a “secretion of putrefying matter”—traded throughout the Mediterranean and into the furthest reaches of the Roman empire (Curtis 1983:232)? Legionnaires in a British or German military camp doubtless grumbled if they failed to receive their ration or special issue of oil. In the United States, molasses, a viscous treacle resulting from cane refining, sweetened many foods in the 19th century, but gradually gave way to refined sugars. Boston’s Molasses Disaster of 1919, in which a burst tank released a brown tsunami 15 feet high, killing 21 people, would be unthinkable today, for a variety of reasons (Molasses Disaster; I am told that on hot days a cloying odor still fills the neighborhood). Mostly, though, such quantities are not needed. Shoofly pie, of gooey molasses, is no longer much on the menu, although it was in my Pennsylvania childhood.

Consider, if one can, another unthinkable: forgetting chocolate or cacao, from a plant found wild and later cultivated in ancient America. Avid debate surrounds the pharmacological effects of this “chemical kaleidoscope”—whether it serves as an anti-depressive or libido enhancer cannot be easily shown (S. Coe and M. Coe 1996:28–34). But craved it was, in many forms. As a liquid, for example, chocolate “introduce[d] Europe to the pleasures of alkaloid consumption” (Coe and Coe 1996:31). Yet there are grounds for believing that, as an elite consumable, it did indeed drop out of use in one area, the Grand Coclé of Panama. Mortuary deposits in that area, as excavated by Samuel Lothrop and J. Alden Mason—as well as looters and “amateur archaeologists”—revealed staggering wealth, especially in gold but also hundreds of vessels and other goods (Lothrop 1937, 1942; Hearne and Sharer 1992). An element of that wealth, flaunted in feasts, may have been the consumption of chocolate by techniques imported from northern Central America or Mesoamerica, and perhaps indirectly from the Maya.

The main clue is a particular shape of ceramic. In his final opus, James Ford, striving for a grand synthesis of New World diffusion—heroically, for he was dying of cancer—charted the movement of ceramic “complexes” across “Formative” America (Ford 1969). One diagnostic: the “jar with bridge spout” or “teapot vessel,” long-understood by most specialists in Mesoamerica and northern Central America to characterize early agricultural settlements (Figure 1; Ford 1969:19, 21, 116, 120–123, Chart 16; on Ford and his diffusionist interests, see Willey 1988:68–70). Not all spouted jars or vessels are the same, of course. These evinced a consistent shape: a bulbous body (sometimes with a well-defined circumference at the mid-line); a vertical if slightly inclined neck; a flattened eversion around the rim; and a straight or gently inclining spout often, but not always, connected to the rim by a ceramic bridge. Volume varied, as did the presence of paint or modeling into effigies.


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Figure 1. Bridge spouts and “Formative” America, esp. Chiapas, Tehuacan, and Veracruz, as excerpted from a chart by James Ford (1969:Chart 16). Dark squares mark time, visible here in 500 year increments from bottom to top, 1500 BC to AD 500. 


A notable strand in Mayanist archaeology is a claim for function. Thomas Gann, working in what was then British Honduras, called one example “the usual Maya chocolate pot” (Figure 2; Gann 1918:77, 128, fig. 74, quotation on p. 128). Mostly he seemed skeptical. Another had “a curious upturned spout” so configured “that it would be impossible either to drink or pour out the contents therefrom” (Gann 1918:77). And: “they were supposed” to have been used for chocolate “but drinking from them must have been a feat of legerdemain” (Gann 1918:77). Where did Gann get the idea? Who had “supposed” this use in the first place? One suggestion is that it came from a description of chocolate vessels “with spouts” by the “Anonymous Conqueror,” among the few Spaniards to leave an eyewitness account of the conquest of Mexico (Spouts; see Merwin and Vaillant 1932:64fn2).

The finest to survive may be an archaicizing object, the stone “Diker Bowl” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the text appears to refer to drinking from the vessel, and possibly to a glyph for seed or grano (pulverized beans?, Houston 2011). Not surprisingly, some of these—and other, even earlier ceramics—have tested positive for theobromine, a key constituent of chocolate (Henderson et al. 2008:18939–18940; Joyce and Henderson 2007:649–651; Powis et al. 2002:97–98; Powis et al. 2011:8597–8599). Whether these drinks were alcoholic or not is an intriguing proposal. Some suggest the first such drinks arose from fermented cacao pulp, i.e., they were inebriants, not a frothed, non-alcoholic beverage made from water and ground beans (e.g., Joyce and Henderson 2010:170). But using residues to distinguish the two remains a challenge.




Figure 2. Chocolate pots among the Maya: (left) “Mound 31,” near the Río Nuevo, Belize (Gann 1918:fig. 74); (right) the “Diker Bowl,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, #1999.484.3 (Diker MMA, photograph courtesy of Justin Kerr, pencil drawing by Stephen Houston, see Houston 2011 Diker Archaicism). 


More recent scholarship takes the reasonable tack that the spout helped in spuming chocolate drinks, a well-known practice in Mesoamerica (McAnany et al. 1999:138; Powis et al. 2002:94). To prepare the drink, someone blew into the spout, in contrast to later practices in which liquid chocolate was beaten with a stick or poured back and forth to raise a head of spume (S. Coe 1994:141): pure taste as the bubbles burst, leaving flavor behind. It is impossible to prove, but this might have followed shifts in perceived hygiene. Did some find it disagreeable to drink chocolate touched, perhaps, by another’s saliva…particularly that of a servant? Or was the change motivated by a need for heightened drama? I have seen this myself. On the north coast of Asturias, Spain, while gorging on razor clams, I once admired a waiter pouring cider from beaker to cup. Not a drop spilled as he drew the beaker further and further away, attaining at last an arc over a yard long.

Generations ago, in a time of diffusionist thought, the broader link between the “chocolate pots” and points south seemed self-evident. Raymond Merwin and George Vaillant (1932:64) noted that the form was “common at Coclé in Panama,” and, in his doctoral dissertation of 1921, published in 1926, Samuel Lothrop observed similar shapes in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, “related to the group of Maya pottery usually known as chocolate pots,” if of far later date (Figure 3; Lothrop 1926:117). The comparison made sense, for Lothrop was one of the last archaeologists to work in all parts of the Americas and, with colleagues, had looked closely at early links across the region (Lothrop 1927; Willey 1976). 


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Figure 3. Turkey effigy jar, Bolsón, Guanacaste, Costa Rica (Lothrop 1926:pl. XIII).


The Coclé vessels are notable for their quantity and quality (Figure 4). Yet, the chance that these held chocolate and that such drinks were of intense interest to Coclé elites appears to have faded away. Over the last decades, The archaeological literature shows little to no mention of chocolate in early Panama. One specialist expresses skepticism about much contact with Mesoamerica (Cooke 2005:155; but see Coggins and Shane 1984:pls. 44–50; Lothrop 1952; Pendergast 1970; Pillsbury et al. 2017:#164, for secure evidence of Coclé gold at Altun Ha, Belize, and Chichen Itza, Mexico). In another essay, he targets “rank” and “status” in the Grand Coclé region, commenting on prestigious drinks in the balsería “ritual game” of the Guaymí of Panama but not, at least in that paper, extending such ties back in time (Cooke 2004:274). Nor do drinks make an appearance in a recent, elegant synthesis of evidence from the Grand Coclé (Cooke 2011).



Figure 4. Spouted jars from Grave 26, Sitio Conte, Panama (Lothrop 1942:fig. 197). 


The diffusionist tendency of earlier archaeology has been a migraine from which some areas have only just recovered: localism, in-situ process, the dignified integrity of regions—these are all concerns that merit a sympathetic response. But then there is chocolate. In a classic study of the Bribri, a Chibchan group along the border of Costa Rica and Panama, Alanson Skinner recorded drying platforms for cacao and the consumption of cacao with plantains, the latter to sweeten the former (Skinner 1920:55, 93, 94). Lothrop (1942b:113) himself mentions Nahua (or Nahuatl?) groups in Panama, evidently engaged in the production or trade of cacao. That account also gives them a “tail more than a third of a yard long,” so one wonders a little about its reliability.

Girolamo Benzoni’s Historia del Mondo Nuevo (2017[1565]:75) does report on the widespread use of cacao in “Muhammad’s Paradise” (a.k.a, Nicaragua): “The fruit is like an almond and grows in a shell about the size of a pumpkin…When it is ripe, the seeds are removed and placed in the sun to dry. When they want to drink, they roast the seeds in a pan over the fire, and then they use the stones they use to make bread to grind them. They put this paste in vases (which are like gourds grown in a certain tree that is found in every part of the Indies) and add warm water bit by bit.” Obligingly, he illustrates a cacao tree, dry seeds, and, of rather less relevance, a woman making fire—was this image about roasting seeds (Figure 5)? To be sure, there is a view that cacao in Nicaragua was of relatively recent origin, having been brought there by Nahua speakers migrating from the north (Stanislawski 1983:8, citing Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, cronista de Indias). Not all agree. The widespread mention of such cultivation down into Panama suggests far greater antiquity, especially for the processing of beans rather than simply the fermentation of pulp (Steinbrenner 2006:265, 267; see also Young 1994:15, for a line between these methods as far south as Colombia).



cachuate tree benzoni 177.jpg

Figure 5. A cacao tree (cacauate) under sheltering arbor, with probable seeds drying in the background (Benzoni 1565, Lib. II:103, Benzoni scan). 


Has the cultivation and use of cacao by Coclé elites been forgotten or overlooked, by both archaeologists and later chiefs? Is cacao the silphium or garum of ancient Panama?

The jars at Sitio Conte and elsewhere have an almost startling similarity to those of the Preclassic Maya and other peoples in northern Central America. In colonial times, not far from Coclé, cacao was processed into beans, presumably for liquid consumption. And there is demonstrable if perhaps indirect contact attested in the form of gold work brought north well before the Spanish conquest. A comment found on-line hints that similar thoughts about cacao have occurred to the curators of the “Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama,” a 2015 exhibit from the University of Pennsylvania Museum (“Straws” for Chocolate).

The main puzzles are the dates. Local specialists suggest that such spouted ceramics in the Grand Coclé must be at least 3–4 centuries after they ceased to be used in the Maya region (Cooke 2011, esp. 158, at c. AD 750–900). Yet, oddly enough, in the Huastec region of Veracruz, Mexico, that same shape is roughly the same date or just before Sitio Conte (Huastec AMNH; Harner Collection). Too much can be made of formal resemblances. Similar jars could service divergent functions, distinct recipes or drinks. But the charge should also be clear: that the Grand Coclé spouted vessels need testing for theobromine. If the alkaloid is present, they will join gold, emeralds, and sperm whale teeth as luxurious items, chocolate vessels, used long ago in Panama.


I thank John Hoopes and Jeffrey Quilter for discussions about spouted pots from Panama; Claudia Brittenham, Charles Golden, and Andrew Scherer offered helpful comments too.


Benzoni, Girolamo. 2017. The History of the New World: Girolamo Benzoni’s Historia del Mondo Nuevo, edited by Robert C. Schwaller and Jana Byars. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park.

Coe, Sophie D. 1994. America’s First Cuisines. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London.

Coggins, Clemency C., and Orrin C. Shane, III, eds. 1984. Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichén Itzá. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Cooke, Richard G. 2004. Rich, Poor, Shaman, Child: Animals, Rank, and Status in the ‘Gran Coclé’ Culture Area of Pre-Columbian Panama. In Behaviour behind Bones: The Zooarchaeology of Ritual, Religion, Status and Identity, edited by Sharyn O’Day, Wim van Neer, and Anton Ervynck, 271–284. Oxbow, Liverpool.

Cooke, Richard G. 2005. Prehistory of Native Americans on the Central American Land Bridge: Colonization, Dispersal, and Divergence. Journal of Archaeological Research 13(2): 129–187.

Cooke, Richard G. 2011. The Gilcrease Collection and Gran Coclé. In To Capture the Sun: Gold of Ancient Panama, by Duane H. King, Richard G. Cooke, Nicholas J. Saunders, John W. Hoopes, and Jeffrey Quilter, 129–173. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK.

Curtis, Robert I. 1983. In Defense of Garum. The Classical Journal 78(3):232–240.

Dalby, Andrew. 2000. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Ford, James A. 1969. A Comparison of Formative Cultures in the Americas: Diffusion or the Psychic Unity of Man. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 11. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Gann, Thomas, W. 1918. The Maya Indians of Southern Yucatan and Northern British Honduras. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 64. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Hearne, Pamela, and Robert J. Sharer, eds. 1992. River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Henderson, John S., Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. McGovern. 2007. Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104 (48): 18937–18940.

Houston, Stephen. 2011. Bending Time Among the Maya. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Bending Time

Joyce, Rosemary A., and John S. Henderson. 2007. From Feasting to Cuisine: Implications of Archaeological Research in an Early Honduran Village. American Anthropologist, n.s, 109(4):642–653.

Joyce, Rosemary A., and John S. Henderson. 2010. Forming Mesoamerican Taste: Cacao Consumption in Formative Period Contexts. In Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by John E. Staller and Michael Carrasco, 157–173. Springer, New York.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1926. Pottery of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Contributions from the Museum of the American Indian, Volume VIII. Heye Foundation, New York.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1927. Pottery Types and Their Sequence in El Salvador. Indian Notes and Monographs, Vol. 1, No. 4. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1937. Coclé: An Archaeological Study of Central Panama, Part I: Historical Background, Excavations at the Sitio Conte, Artifacts and Ornaments. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. VII. Cambridge, MA.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1942a. Coclé: An Archaeological Study of Central Panama, Part II. Pottery of the Sitio Conte and other Archeological Sites. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. VIII. Cambridge, MA.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1942b. The Sigua: Southernmost Aztec Outpost. In Proceedings of the 8th American Scientific Congress, Volume II: Anthropological Sciences, edited by Paul Oehser, 109–116. Department of State, Washington, DC.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1952. Metals from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichén-Itzá, Yucatán. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol, 10(2). Cambridge, MA.

McAnany, Patricia A., Rebecca Storey, and Angela K. Lockard. 1999. Mortuary Ritual and Family Politics at Formative and Early Classic K’axob, Belize. Ancient Mesoamerica 10:129–146.

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A Universe in a Maya Lintel IV: Seasonal Gods and Cosmic Kings 3

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art), David Stuart (UT-Austin), and Karl Taube (UC-Riverside)

As a form of authority, sacred kingship is both ubiquitous and long-lived. It occurs most everywhere where complex societies exist, and it has endured, until its recent extinction or weakening, for thousands of years (Oakley 2006:10–11). Yet there are almost as many variants as there are examples. This is not to deny parallels or traits held in common. Typically, sacred rule fuses microcosms (structures at immediate, human scale) with macrocosms (those at vast levels beyond easy comprehension). It also mutes or disguises the vagaries of political life. To make such affairs seem smooth, logical, and predictable, there may be appeals to—or mergers with—eternal cycles, celestial phenomena, and exemplary beings of a supernatural sort. When it comes to kings, what better understanding can there be than Le Roi Soleil of France (Burke 1992), a Hellenistic ruler with radiate, solar crown (Stewart 1993:246) or Jayavarman VII of Khmer civilization, smiling out to us as the Buddha of compassion and mercy (Coe 2003:124)?

A checklist of sacred kingship runs a risk, however. It assembles a package of attributes that pulls away, if one is not careful, from what counts: the local meanings, play of personalities, variable emphases, and “shifting contingencies of history” that enliven and trouble human existence (Oakley 2006:18; see also Houston and Stuart 1996). Laxtunich Lintel 1 lodges all the features of sacred kingship—links to deities, diurnal or seasonal cycles, celestial or chthonic bodies, the architecture of cosmos itself—in a granular record of politics and hierarchy (Maya Lintel II). Specialists speak of “naturalizing” the ordering of society. Lintel 1 does so at the elite level. Supernatural beings and behaviors slot neatly over and into those of humans. But the greatest novelty is its declaration of self-reference, an illustration, seldom seen in ancient America, of royal construction taking place, and of much else besides: stone that meets sky, day confronting night, season poised against season, royal flesh made divine, and gods brought into human form by ritual impersonation.

Kings, Gods, and Magnates

The composition of Laxtunich Lintel 1 is in some respects like a quincunx, a five-part ordering of distinct elements (Figure 1). In the upper register, two seated figures engage with each other while seated on a stylized “sky-band,” a schematic rendering of the heavens as a linear band. That band sprouts a head. Simon Martin (2015:192–196, esp. figures 11, 12), has studied this “cosmic monster of the sky,” a crocodilian creature with Venus-sign in his deer ear, and, at far end, a stylized cache vessel or censer, its marking for k’in, “sun, day,” painted yellow (Maya Lintel III). Opposed to an “earth monster,” a terrestrial counterpart—which does not appear here—the croc may have been separated from its opposite at the moment of creation (Martin 2015:194–195). Not a static being, it appears to move along in majestic passage: a text on a throne at Palenque even describes it in terms of numli ta chan, numli ta kab, “it passes in the sky, it passes on the earth,” apparently across the “back,” paat, of an important Period Ending (Stuart 2003). Two Atlantean figures, said to aggregated with a set of four (4-ITZAM-TUUN-ni), support this mass. Their faces look downwards in steady concentration—this is hard work! In the middle sits an elderly being in profile. Below is a skull with two long bones passing through its orbits and out the palate. Symmetrical vegetation emerges from a cleft just beneath that god. Although subtle, the pattern is clear: there are two figures seated on the sky, two support them, and another, much smaller being hunches more-or-less in the center. Together, they form a quincunx, a common (and ancient) emblem for centrality, fire-making, and cosmic order (Taube 2009:90, 92).




Figure 1. Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by James Doyle).


The gathering of figures is at once mythic and human. The most important figure is on the left, not usually a position of honor in Maya imagery (that usually occurs to upper right, Figure 2). Yet this arrangement is well-attested on lintels in the kingdom of Yaxchilan, especially at its subordinate settlements. The local lord often appears to the right, as the main figure of local interest. In seeming compensation, the overlord is depicted in such a way to mark his exalted status. On Laxtunich Lintel 2 and Mayuy Series Lintel 1 (from the Kimbell Art Museum), he sits on the left but at higher level, ensconced on a throne that, perhaps, can still be seen at Yaxchilan (see below). Mayuy Series Lintel 2 represents the overlord in more conventional position, to viewer’s right. On Laxtunich Lintel 1 the overlord’s superior status is semaphored by his frontal position, one hand on the thigh rather than on the ground—contrast this with the underling’s deferential gesture (see Figure 1). The overlord’s torso is erect rather than inclined, his handheld glyph higher than his counterpart’s. A delicate visual choreography operates here, denoting what is local yet adjusting for relative status. There is little doubt about the person in charge, but local lords discharge key, if supporting, roles in the performance.



Figure 2. Laxtunich Lintel 1, detail, Chelew Chan K’inich [Shield Jaguar IV] of Yaxchilan (photograph by James Doyle). 


The main text occupies a privileged position between the two figures (Figure 3). It reads:

A1–B1   7 Manik 10 Sip ([], March 18, AD 773, Julian Date [Martin and Skidmore 2012, for correlation used here])

A2–B2   K’AL-[la]ja ti-CHAN K’IN-AJAW-wa, k’ahlaj ti kan k’in ajaw, “the Sun Lord is raised in the sky”

A3–B4   U-BAAH[AHN?] K’IN-AJAW-wa che-le wa-CHAN [K’IN]-ni~chi K’UH-PA’-CHAN-AJAW-wa, u baah ahn? k’in ajaw cheleew chan k’inich k’uhul pa’chan ajaw, “it is the [impersonated] body/portrait of the Sun God, Cheleew Chan K’inich [Shield Jaguar IV], holy lord of the Split-Sky [Yaxchilan]”




Figure 3. Laxtunich Lintel 1, glyphs A1–B4, alternative lighting (photographs by James Doyle). 

Several things are evident in the text. On this date the Sun God is raised in the sky, a reference to the heavy lifting by subordinates underneath. The text then identifies the ruler of Yaxchilan, Cheleew Chan K’inich [Shield Jaguar IV], who impersonated that deity during this act of elevation (for impersonation, see Houston and Stuart 1996; further study, Nehammer Knub et al. 2009). Sun God impersonations occur elsewhere in the corpus of Maya texts, most notably with the owners of certain ceramic vessels (Figure 4). In holding up or using such a vase, the owners presumably channeled the identity of a resplendent, eagle-like (tzikiin) god. (Some Maya pots may have been used more selectively than thought or were at least intended for special ritual occasions.)




Figure 4. Impersonation of the resplendent, eagle-like Sun God (Huk Chapaht Tzikiin K’inich Ajaw): (A) Vase of the Eleven Gods, Naranjo, Guatemala:G1–L1 (K7750, pre-restoration images, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (B) Chama-style vase:J1–R1 (K7224, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (C) Bonampak murals, Room 1, Initial Series text:E’1–F’2 (drawing by Stephen Houston); and (D) late vase with non-Maya glyphs:D1–J1 (K6437, all photographs by Justin Kerr, with permission).


Cheleew Chan K’inich’s personal name invoked the Sun God, K’inich, so the connection may be somewhat personal. The association does not end there. His headdress has an openwork and angled, even woven, shape with, at front, the extruded head of the centipede. That creature corresponds to the rays of the sun (Boot 1999; Taube 2003). On Copan Stela A, the thirteenth ruler, 18 U Baah K’awiil, dresses as this figure. A text to the side of that image alludes to the impersonation, although further specifying that the flaming or smoking solar disk belongs to a snake—is this some typological understanding of elongated, venomous centipedes (Figure 5)?




Figure 5. Centipedes and “ribbed” headdresses with Sun God impersonation: (A) Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by James Doyle); (B) Copan Stela A:B9 (drawing by Linda Schele); and (C) Copan Stela A, top front (drawing by Anne Dowd; Baudez 1994:fig. 2A).


A similar depiction is found on an unprovenanced stela glimpsed at the Palacio Canton in Mérida, Yucatan (Figure 6). The ruler’s body blazes with a K’IN sign on the upper arm, and the AJ-K’IN-AJAW incised nearby buttresses his identification with the Sun God. On the lord’s head is a jawless centipede, and his nose exhales a stylized blast of hot breath. Even his face approximates the K’IN glyph by showing the characteristic lobes of that sign. Added information must have been in the upper portion of the stela, in a fragment long since cut off by looters (natural breaks on the bottom suggest the lower section remains in situ).



Figure 6.  Ruler as Sun God with centipede headdress, stela on display, Palacio Canton, Mérida, Yucatan (photograph by David Stuart). 


A final trait deserves comment. The face of Cheleew Chan K’inich has a noteworthy touch, a pointy goatee (Figure 7). Other evidence assigns such facial hair, often yellow, to the Sun God, as can be appreciated in the Postclassic Madrid Codex (Ishihara-Brito and Taube 2012:466; also Taube 1992:50, 52).




Figure 7. Bearded Sun God, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (lower left, photograph by James Doyle); and Madrid 108B (Lee 1985:138). 


The date of Laxtunich Lintel 1 can be probed for other meanings. It lies close to a calculation, contingent on which calendar is used, of March 20, AD 773, close to the vernal or spring equinox (NASA calculation, taking latitude into account). At this point of the year day and night are roughly of the same length, a feature emphasized in the Yukateko expression, “lahcet kin yetel akab, “equally/together the sun and night” (Bolles Dictionary). Today, the vernal equinox marks the conventional division between spring and summer. For the Tzotzil Maya of Chamula, Chiapas, the separation goes deeper still. Both fall and spring equinoxes designate times of “rising” and “waning” heat, establishing a line between categorical opposites—dry season vs. rainy season, day vs. night, left hand vs. right hand, and active vs. dormant phases of agriculture (Gossen 1972:30–35, fig. 2). This line also helps configure the path of ritual circuits.

The equinox as moments when resources shift finds an echo among the Cora of Western Mexico, where the sun arrives on March 21 to awaken another god (Nicanori) so that he might “create all the shellfish and fish and prepare the birds to lay eggs”; another deity, aroused by the forceful light, begins to produce the “salt and other fruits…in the months of April, May, and June” (Mathiowitz 2011:448). At the equinoxes “the rays of the rising sun enter the … [temple] doorway and symbolically climb the stepped altar in his symbolic ascent into the sky” (Mathiowitz 461). A harvest of feathers marks this occasion as well. It was at the vernal equinox in Paquimé, Mexico, that the scarlet macaws met their end, sacrificed when their plumage was most mature (Mathiowitz 2011:666–667). Further to the north, the Tewa of New Mexico had Summer Chiefs who took charge after the vernal equinox, presiding over the “warm-weather agricultural cycle” (Mathiowitz 2011:918).

In ancient times, equinoxes had more to do with whether the sun rose due east and set due west. Such experiences have been adduced, for example, to explain equinoctial alignments in Structure 1-sub at Dzibilchaltun, Mexico (Coggins 1983:7fn3; Coggins and Drucker 1988). For our purposes, the precise conjuncture is less important than the evident need of scribes to associate such an occasion with the month day “10 Sip.” Marc Zender (personal communication, 2017) reconstructs a similar set of dates on the apparent equipment (casting pendants?) of a calendar or rainmaking priest from Comalcalco, Tabasco, Mexico (he also points out that such notations exist on molded bricks with Long Count notations). The “10 Sip” combine with a set of day names— Ik’, Manik, Eb, Kaban—that served as “year-bearer” or first-of-year dates in the Classic Maya calendar (Stuart 2004; see also Kaban in a reference to the solstice, Stuart 2015 Solstice).

According to Zender, the “10 Sip” dates at Comalcalco fall exceptionally close to the vernal equinox. To be sure, that observational reality might have been conditioned by the need to join ritually important day signs to a conventionally fixed position in the month. A longstanding affinity exists between “10 Sip” and rainmaking, as in this mention from the Yukateko Chronicle of Oxkutzcab: “…men at Mani they were, rainbringers at Chichén Itzá then, and there escaped Nahau Veeh, Napot Covoh. On 10 Zip it took place, in 12 Ahau it was, the tun on 2 Yaxkin, that it may be remembered (Thompson 1927:6–7, using a translation by William E. Gates, emphasis added; Zender kindly provided the reference). One epigraphic proposal entertains a reading of t’ohxaj for the verb on the Comalcalco pendants—could this as yet unproven decipherment bear some connection to Yukateko t’ox, “divide, distribute,” as in a year split seasonally (Davletshin and Bíró 2014:5)?

What can be understood is this: on Laxtunich Lintel 1 the image of the raised Sun God fit conceptually with the vernal equinox. The sun and, as a god, the Sun shifted to dominance in the heavens. The close congruence with Chamulan belief is, as we shall see, almost unsettling, with its shared emphasis on night and day, the seasons, and agricultural cycles.




Figure 8. Vernal (near-)equinox dates, Comalcalco Urn 26: (1) Pendant 3a, with reconstructed date by Marc Zender; (2) Pendant 4a; (3) Pendant 6a; (4) Pendant 16a, and; (5) Pendant 17a (drawings by Marc Zender, courtesy of the Proyecto Arqueológico de Comalcalco; all are Julian Dates in the Martin-Skidmore correlation). 


Seeking other clues, we now turn to the caption of the other figure in the top register (Figure 9). This text reads:

C1          u-BAAH-hi[AHN?], u baah ahn?, “it is the impersonation of…”

D1          1-?-AK’AB-AJAW, 1-?-ak’ab-ajaw, “the 1 ? Lord of Night”

C2–D2    AJ-YAX-bu-lu k’u-K’UK’, Aj Yax Bul K’uk’, name of the nobleman

E1-F1     sa-ja-la CHAK-to-ko-WAY-bi?, sajal chak tok wayib, the nobleman’s two titles




Figure 9. Laxtunich Lintel 1, glyphs C1–D1, alternative lighting (photographs by James Doyle). 


The subordinate holds a relatively common title, sajal, a term that evades full understanding despite decades of research. The title can be read as to its sound, but there is no consensus on what its constituents mean nor how they relate to noble status. The other is a less usual epithet that may refer to a magnate (Figures 10). Dmitri Beliaev (2004), Alexandre Tokovinine, and Simon Martin have done the most extensive studies of the title. In some areas, as around Holmul, it appears to enjoy great time depth, going into late periods as well. At Tikal, it served as the epithet of an important captive depicted on a large rock outcrop in the Maler causeway and on a column altar from the north side of West Plaza (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:83). The texts of those carvings contain two dates. Perhaps they two stations of display (and pure misery for the captive), at a place to the north of Tikal, along a north-south road, and towards its very center. The prisoner seems to have been captured (baakwaj) and then, two days later, sacrificed on Dec. 11, AD 749 (Martin 2003:31–32. Another humiliating depiction tops the undated Tikal Altar 8 (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 30). For a captive not of highest rank—he carries no Emblem glyph—the Tikal dynasty nonetheless reveled in his discomfiture and downfall. His importance continues to puzzle.



Figure 10.  Chak Tok Wayib title, highlighted, Tikal Causeway Carving (left, drawing by Simon Martin) and Tikal Column Altar 1:B2 (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 110a).


Turning back to the lintel: what is to be made of the god impersonated by the local lord? Text-image correlations offer one lead (Figure 11). The glyphs spell out ak’ab ajaw, “lord of the night,” which must point to the ak’ab element in his panache of feathers. The other objects are more difficult to make out—the volutes resemble smoke or flame, but they also include a puzzling medial loop—yet the glyphs provide assistance here.




Figure 11. Glyph of impersonated deity and headdress element of sajal (photograph by James Doyle).


The lord’s impersonation spells out an aspect of the Maize God, perhaps read 1 Ixi’m (Zender 2014:2, fig. 1; n.b, Mayanists sometimes render ixi’m, a term for “grain corn,” as ixiim, but the common use of an internal glottal stop in Highland Mayan languages favors the former, as cued by disharmonic spellings with subfixed ma syllable [Kaufman 2003:1034–1035]). A set of substitutions in an entirely different royal name at La Corona, Guatemala, lays out the variants (Figure 12). One example (Figure 11D) “explodes” the sequence of superimposed name glyphs into a fully visible 1-IXI’M CHAK-NAHB-bi CHAN/CHAN[A’N?] (the final sign, perhaps, from Ch’orti’, a’n, “elote,” or “green ear of corn” [Hull 2016:57]).




Figure 12. Chakaw Nahb Chana’n? of La Corona, Guatemala: (A) La Corona Miscellaneous 2:A6–B1 (photographer by Irmgard Groth-Kimball); (B) Element 56:pH6 (Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona); (C) Element 33:E5 (drawing by David Stuart); and (D) Site Q Panel 1/Grolier:C3–C4 (Coe 1973:pl. 3).


The abbreviated glyphs exhibit the same locks of hair and jewels as in various foreheads of the Maize God (Figure 13).




Figure 13. Maize god with hair lock and forehead jewels: (upper left) Maize god on Dumbarton Oaks carved bowl; (upper right) Maize god on chocolate pot (K1560, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (lower left) Maize god on watery journey (K1202, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (lower left) 1 Ajaw, painted text, Group G, Tikal, Guatemala (photograph by David Stuart).


But there is an alternative reading, in that 1 Ixi’m may simply communicate “one” or juun. This possibility receives support from varied spellings for the “Water Lily Serpent” impersonated by some lords and ladies (Figure 14A). A vessel from the Cuychen Cave in Belize, to give one example, uses the forehead elements for the number “one,” and in a context with tight controls for that meaning (Figure 14B; see also Tikal Stela 9:A2, where the number “two” is recorded with a circle, for “one,” plus a circle with pendant [Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 13a)]; see the comparable spelling on Tikal Stela 40:E4). Admittedly, some of the texts at La Corona (Figure 12A, 12B) may show an abbreviation of an abbreviation: a stripped-down 1 Ixi’m in which the upper part of the jewel has disappeared or been fused with the number.



Figure  14. Water serpent signs with variants of “1”: (A) El Peru Stela 34:H1–G2 (Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1967.29; photographer unknown); and (B) Cuychen Vase:G1–H1 (Helmke et al. 2015:fig. 15).


A related set of glyphs incorporate a rare prefix, as attached to TUUN, “stone,” signs in spellings from Tonina, Mexico (Figure 15). That prefix portrays the jewel and forelock of the Maize God, yet they also—this is crucial—refer to stones erected on the dates 1 Ajaw. Are these “Maize God” stones in some metaphoric sense or do they refer to stones elevated on “1 Ajaw,” all on a particular Period Ending in the Maya calendar?

Whatever the interpretation, it seems plausible that the impersonation of the lord with Shield Jaguar IV was as the “Maize God Lord of the Night” or, alternatively, as the “1 Lord of the Night.” Other inferences ensue. The first is that the Sun God, dominant in real life as the overlord, dominant celestially as the sun that ever stronger at this time of year, and dominant mythically as a potent deity, is opposed on Laxtunich Lintel 1 to a Lord of the Night. The latter was connected in some way to the Maize God or, perhaps, to a number associated with the god. In this text Mayuy may have prefigured Chamulan ideas (among others) by alluding to notional segments of the Maya year: one for the Sun and full dry season, another for the night and a time of growth. The mention on Sakpeten Altar 1 of the “birth” of the sun on the observed winter solstice whispers of other divisions in the Classic Maya year (Stuart 2015). Possibly it was divided into four parts, of which two, the summer solstice and September equinox, have yet to be discerned or clearly mentioned in Maya texts.

Correspondences between political hierarchies and seasonal (and even agricultural) shifts introduce other questions. Why was an overlord linked to seasonal dominance after the vernal equinox? Was this because of the obvious tie between a ruler and the most obtrusive being in the sky? Or did it relate to the timing of Classic wars and skirmishes, when battles, most led by kings, involved people who could be removed from agricultural duties (Martin 2014:Chart 18)? The sector in which Laxtunich was found likely served as the “hamper” of the kingdom, a place producing much of its food (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017). The ritual arrangements on the lintel glimmer with economic ones.

We do know the sun was a preoccupation of the Yaxchilan dynasty. Its rulers expressed great interest in solar movements, especially the summer solstice, with which they aligned buildings like Structure 41 (Tate 1992:95, 240–249). Dances too were celebrated with a distinct rod that scholars call a “flapstaff,” one being depicted at La Pasadita, not far from the possible location of Laxtunich (Kamal et al. 1999). As at Dzibilchaltun, perhaps the building that housed the Laxtunich lintels accorded with the vernal equinox and its east-west alignments. Dana Lamb’s map hints at such architectural “hierophanies” or celestially motivated orientations (Maya Lintel I, see Figure 11; Aveni et al. 2003). Much depends on the placement of “north.” Lamb provides no arrow, but we presume he used a compass while thrashing through the forest. If facing east, the rooms would have received light at dawn, if west, at sunset.




Figure 15. K’al-tuun expressions with Maize God “forelock” and related Ajaw dates: (A) “New Captive,” Tonina ( 1 Ahaw 3 Pop, Associated Press photo by Moysés Zúñiga); (B) Tonina Monument 145, J1, A1 ( 1 Ajaw 3 Pop, Graham et al. 2006:76); and (C) Tonina Monument 134:A8–B8 (9.13.)5.0.0 1 Ajaw (3 Pop).

The celestial connotations of the upper register pose one other problem. There is a pairing of two objects held by Shield Jaguar IV/the Sun God and Aj Yax Bul K’uk’/ the God of the Night (Figure 16). The first is a duck-billed wind god (numbered “13” on Laxtunich Lintel 1) as held by Shield Jaguar. The second is a deer head with human footprint over the eye (also with “13”), here lifted by Aj Yax Bul K’uk’. On the Dos Pilas support at the bottom of Figure 16, the Sun God holds the deer head, and at Copan, the wind god merges with what may be a ju syllable (an onomatopoeia for an exhalation?). There is a suspicion that this pairing also relates to the seasons, including times of winds or sun, but the meaning flits away from us.




Figure 16. Opposition of Wind deity and deer with footprint in eye: Laxtunich Lintel 1 (top, photograph by James Doyle); Copan Stela 49:pC4–pC4 (2nd from top, drawing by Barbara Fash); supports for figures on the Tablet of the Slaves, Palenque (3rd from top, photographs by Linda Schele, #366, 367, Linda Schele Photograph Collection); upper right support, Structure N5-21, Dos Pilas, Guatemala (photograph Jorge Pérez de Lara, Finamore and Houston 2010:98, pl. 26). 


The Atlantean Itzam

Beneath the register with the king of Yaxchilan and lord of Laxtunich are the two Atlanteans (Figure 1). Their titles read 4-ITZAM-TUUN-ni, the “4 Itzam Stones,” indicating that there would have been two more to complement this pair (see above, Stuart 2007 Itzam reading; see also Martin 2015:205–206, fig. 2, 9). The first employed a name well-stocked with syllabic elements: mo-yo?-lo-AJAW, moyol ajaw (cf. Ch’orti’ moyor, “cinched [bag],” Hull 2016:287), as well as a relatively high title, ba-sa-ja-la, baah sajal, the “head sajal” (Figure 17). Ordinarily, that title connotes primus inter pares, “first among equals.” The noble is also an ajaw. The paradox is that the figure seated with the Sun God/Shield Jaguar IV—namely, the local lord extolled in the lintels—was merely a sajal. The Chak Tok Wayib title might have contributed a more exalted touch to his status. But this also suggests that some sajal could serve yet other sajal, perhaps at the behest of an overlord.




Figure 17. Caption by Itzam to lower left, Laxtunich Lintel 1:G1–G3, with alternative lighting (photograph by James Doyle).

The second Itzam, who wears the same water-lily dress as his companion, uses no ajaw or sajal title (Figure 18). The caption does record that he captured one CHAK-u-xi, Chak Uux, in battle (ux is a patronymic in Yucatan, but the meaning is uncertain here [Barrera Vásquez 1980:903]). In other words, he was a warrior when not doing the sweaty work of lifting the sky.




Figure 18. Caption of Itzam to lower right, Laxtunich Lintel 1:H1–H3, with alternative lighting (photograph by James Doyle).

An unprovenanced stela in a private collection (Figure 19), said to be from the “région de l’Usumacinta,” contains an identical name at 4 Ajaw 13 Keh (Sept. 12, AD 795, Julian Date, Stierlin 1998:#215). This cannot be the same person. The dates come too late. But it may have been a namesake or close relative of an enemy taken in war by the Itzam impersonator on the Laxtunich lintel. Moreover, and probably not by chance, the unprovenanced stela contains the same basal or toponymic element as the lintel. It portrays almost a vegetal seepage, split in two parts, from a frontal skull and, in the case of the stela, from what may be a stylized seed. Is the place-emblem mythic in both scenes or does it concern an actual location?




Figure 19. A shared name and toponym, Laxtunich Lintel 1 and an unknown site in the Usumacinta drainage (Stierlin 1998:#215).


The Itzam have been thoroughly researched elsewhere (Martin 2015; Stuart 2007). Elderly, wizened beings on the whole, they display markings of stone, hard, even indurated bodies, and water-lily headbands, tending also to gather in groups of fours (Figure 20). They do work for others, undertake heavy lifting, offer subservient attendance, hold up day signs as part of cycles of years, and by habit live in watery and chthonic abodes. Typically, they associate with k’an, “yellow,” the color of ripe corn, symbolic of harvest (see Figure 20, name captions).




Figure 20. Four Itzam-tuun, c. AD 700, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, #1988.1174 (photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission).


On a stela at Jaina, Campeche, Mexico (Figure 21), a union takes place between the four stony Itzam and, as the text indicates, the stone itself: tz’a-pa-ja 4-ITZAM-TUUN-ni, tz’ahpaj 4 Itzam Tuun, “The Four Itzam Tuun are driven [into the ground],” but erected under the supervision of a historical personage. This is more than a depiction, a flat carved surface. It refers to what might be called “lithic immanence,” the proposition that spirits reside in stone while doing the work expected of them. In Classic Maya texts, only deities are recorded in this way (e.g., Houston and Stuart 1996:304, fig. 17).




Figure 21.  Jaina Stela 1, 12 Ajaw 8 Ceh (Oct. 12, AD 652, Julian Date, photograph by Eric von Euw, draftsman of inking unknown).


A theme that most closely recalls the Laxtunich Itzam is on a pot of unknown provenance and whereabouts  (the photo mosaic with incorrect joins suggests the image was taken some time ago, Figure 22). Two Itzam in an awkward, back-breaking position support a sky throne with a fierce Sun God. The deity’s headdress matches that on the Laxtunich lintel, a centipede adorns his staff, and what may be a centipede jaw issues from his mid-section to curl towards his back. (The painter seems enamored of that form, repeating it across the image.) A figure with Maize God features and a lunar crescent sits behind the Sun God on another throne. There is no help here from tortured, bleating Itzam, only an angular throne with circular adornos (see the women’s throne in Room 3 of the Bonampak murals; Miller and Brittenham 2013:folded insert). The second deity shows indeterminate gender, although the glyph above the crescent may indicate that this is a female. The pair of gods evokes ancestral roundels on the top of stelae at Yaxchilan, one for a father, the other a mother (Houston and Inomata 2009:fig. 7.12). On the pot, the cringing Itzam to the left implies some story not expressed at Laxtunich. He recoils from a fearsome creature rising in front of the Sun God’s throne.



Figure 22. Late Classic vase, unknown location and photographer. 


The final figure in the five-part arrangement is dressed as an Itzam, with the same water lily headdress as the noblemen. But the figure has by contrast a more aged, slumped look (Figure 23). The limbs have withered muscles, and, notably, a large head of animate stone merges with his body yet faces in the opposite direction. Such markings do not occur on the more youthful Itzam supporting the sky. His role differs in another respect. In his right hand he holds, not a duck-billed wind god or deer-with-human footprint, but a set of glyphs read CH’AHB-AK’AB, if with the same number 13 (the Ch’olan languages make a spelling of ch’ahb rather than ch’ab more likely; moreover, because of usage in Ch’olan, Houston prefers a meaning closer to “ayuno” or “fast” rather than “creation,” a Yukateko gloss [Kaufman and Norman 1984:118]). The meaning of this phrase is opaque—it is mentioned in accounts of creation in the Yukateko Ritual of the Bacabs (Bolles 2003:7, 83, 87, 90, 91, 153, 162, among other examples, all passages of utmost obscurity). The same combination of signs appears in offering bowls for bloodletting at Yaxchilan, but without any attached number (Figure 24).



Figure 23. Itzam and 13-Ch’ahb-Ak’ab sign (photographs by James Doyle). 



Figure 24. Comparison between CH’AB[AK’AB] on Laxtunich Lintel 1 and Yaxchilan Lintel 13 (lower left, drawing by Eric von Euw) and Lintel 14 (drawing by Ian Graham, both Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University [CMHI 3:35, 3:37]). 

The elderly Itzam is unique on the lintel by conveying a purely mythic identity. There is no evidence that he corresponds to an actual historical figure. This may be why he, alone on the lintel, has no glyphic caption. His body is curious in another way. It is the only part of the lintel to be torched, burned or daubed with some far darker material. Lamb’s photographs make it clear that this section was one of the first to be exposed—had the figure become an object of devotion by Lacandon Maya visiting the site (Maya Lintel I?  (Their “god pots” are mentioned by Lamb at various places in the region.) Or was this some earlier ritual that paid particular attention to the elderly Itzam (Maya Lintel III)?


Lifting the Sky, Lifting the Lintel 

The two Itzam disclose an intriguing detail. The text leaves the main activity quite explicit, that the Sun God is being “lifted up” (k’al) in the sky (Figure 25).



Figure 25.  Lifting the sky on Laxtunich Lintel 1, the celestial crocodile and censer highlighted in yellow (photograph by James Doyle, modified by Stephen Houston).


Several Maya verbs have a celestial or mythic referent (Houston 2012 Heavenly Bodies). The idea that “lifting” of cultural features—stelae, lintels, royal headbands—could derive from or parallel some celestial action may account for unexplained variants of the K’AL sign at Chichen Itza and other sites (Figure 26). The spelling on a lintel of the Las Monjas, Chichen Itza, refers to the raising of a carved lintel (pa-ka-ba TUUN-ni) but with a K’IN or sun glyph in the hand. Other examples, almost all from the northern part of the Maya area, display star and sky signs, shiny celts, and, in an example on the Altar de Sacrificios Vase, pointed out by Simon Martin (personal communication, 2014), a small figure lifts a polished celt above its Humpty Dumpty head. The raising of the Sun God on the lintel fits these concepts and may have existed as their mythic template or exemplar. Among the Preclassic Maya, most polished celts now lie in caches, disposed in cosmic arrangements (e.g., Aoyama et al. 2017:figs. 7, 8). But part of their existence was above-ground, to be lifted up as central instruments of ritual. Their endpoint was not the totality of their meaning. By the same token, the elevation of lintels, stelae, and pots accrued purpose and warrant in acts of celestial creation and in daily events as miraculous, yet expected, as the rising of the sun.



Figure 26. Celestial versions of K’AL verb: (A) raising of lintel carving, u-pa-ka-ba TUUN-ni, Las Monjas Lintel 4:B2–C1 (drawing by Ian Graham, but with his numbering scheme, which needs revision); (B) Xcalumkin Column 4:A2 (drawing by Ian Graham); (C) Molded-carved vessel:B1 (K4466, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); and (D) Altar de Sacrificios Vase:E1 (image courtesy of George Stuart).


Another point bears mentioning. The fingers of the two standing Itzam curl around the edges of an animate stone (Figure 27). The image does not just highlight the lifting of the sky, although that must be taking place. A piece of inscribed stone is involved. The image is self-referential, hearkening back to the elevation of a stone, the lintel itself. In a unique visual, the carving depicts how the lintel came into position, yet it laminates that action with a mythic overlay. Mayuy clearly relished his innovative depiction of architectural construction. Indeed, he chose to inscribe his name and titles into the stone’s eyes on the lintel within a lintel—like Velázquez or Le Brun inserting themselves into commissioned works. Mayuy, if in name alone, peers towards viewers from the center of the scene, the color of his name glyphs the same as on bodies nearby (Maya Lintel III). That royal and divine vision can validate what it sees—that it reaches out to affect the world—finds a firm basis in Classic Maya thought (Houston et al. 2006:173–175). Mayuy has claimed a prerogative of kings and gods. His is the only presence, aside from the skull below, to address the viewer directly.



Figure 27. Close-up, Laxtunich Lintel 1, showing snout of animate stone facing downwards (photograph by James Doyle). 


The downward looking snouts provide a compelling clue for the idea that this is a lintel. The language of the inscriptions uses, as an Eastern Ch’olan language, a “causative” for positional verbs. Depending on the stem it qualifies, and the vowel of the stem, that suffix would be, -bu, as in “pak-b’u [pak-bu] ‘to place face down'” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:106). Pak itself is a term from Common Ch’olan *päk “bend/fold over…face down” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:128). Of relevance here is that, no only is pak, “face down,” well-attested as a positional verb (a face-down cacao/maize god in Figure 28A), but it functions as part of expressions for the raising or elevation of lintels (Figures 28B, 28C). The lintels illustrated here, both found in areas not far from the probable location of Laxtunich, describe themselves as, “placed-face-down stone,” pa-ka-bu-TUUN. The Laxtunich lintel thus appears on itself. Those elevating the lintel are not the overlord or the local patron. They are yet other nobles tasked with the commission.





Figure 28. Pak, “face-down,” in Maya texts: (A) pa-ka-la-ja, Dumbarton Oaks fine limestone bowl, detail, glyph at E1, Early Classic period (Martin 2012:fig. 55c, drawing by Simon Martin); (B) [‘i?]k’a-K’AL-ja u-pa ka-bu TUUN-ni-IL, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, #61_15, Dec. 31, AD 513?; and (C) k’a-K’AL-ja u-pa-ka-bu-TUUN, “Po-Panel,” area of Bonampak, Mexico, AD 521 (BAMW Photography). 


Depictions of building and construction are exceedingly rare in the Maya world. Sculpting is shown on a panel found near Palenque, a day or two’s walk from the area of Laxtunich (Stuart 1990 Emiliano Zapata)—its scene of a lord carving a stone is securely self-referential (Herring 1998). Another appears on Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Step VII (CMHI 3:160). A riser offers, to upper left, a small, abridged version of itself. The Postclassic Madrid Codex is the only source in which images of building abound: u-ta-k’a u-sa-sa, “he [the god] plasters his wall” (Figure 29, Houston 1998:358fn16), while, on other pages, with a sign of unknown value (a Postclassic PAT?, see Prager 2013), they appear to shape walls or lift up wooden lintels (Figure 30).




Figure 29. Madrid pages 14a, 15a (Lee 1985:91, 92). 



Figure 30. Madrid pages 20b, 21b (Lee 1985:94, 95).


In making such images the Maya seem a decided anomaly in Mesoamerica and more broadly in ancient America. Views of building in the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex, delightful for their fresh vignettes and vibrant action, nonetheless stuff the scenes with western buildings and inject them with western practice (Figure 31). Metal adzes, classical pillars, and pediments—the forms could come right out of Renaissance Spain or Italy, and must have graphic antecedents in images (prints?) seen by the painters.




Figure 31. Images of quarrying, stone-carving, and construction, Florentine Codex, Book X (Medicea Laurenziana Biblioteca, Florence, Book X). 


For better parallels, it behooves us to turn to ancient Egypt or the inner walls of the Bayon in Angkor Thom, Cambodia (Figures 32, 33). For his tomb, Rekhmire, an important official in the reigns of the Pharaohs Thutmose III and Amenhotep, commissioned a virtual manual of mortar preparation, carving, and building (Figure 32, Rekhmire TT100 Tomb). A more complicated activity perplexes scholars who have tried to make sense of building scenes at the Bayon (Figure 33). Pulleys and, as Houston has seen personally, drilled holes and compression weights helped to rest or affix one stone to another as the great mass of the Bayon rose in the late 12th and early 13th centuries AD. The Laxtunich lintel went them one better by taking such muscular acts, innately collaborative but not of highest prestige, only to appropriate and enlarge them. Aj Yax Bul K’uk’ sat with his king, at a time of seasonal shift, but also entered with Shield Jaguar into the guise of timeless beings. Other nobles, the mainstays of the kingdom, were shown as obliging supporters of that dispensation, raising the lintel in an echo of creation.


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Figure 32.  Rekhmire TT100, Eighteenth Dynasty, New Kingdom, ‘Thebes, Egypt (Creative Commons).


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Figure 33. Bayon relief, construction (photograph by Michael Coe, used with permission). 

Creation, curiously enough, is a good place to end: the mythic actors and setting of the Laxtunich lintel may not labor in some diffuse past. Rather, they couch their ritual work within a pan-Mesoamerican episode of creation, the lifting of stone, sky, and celestial reptiles out of watery places, perhaps out of primordial floods. The agents of that lifting are Atlanteans, duck-billed Wind Gods of unimaginable strength, as in an illustration from the Postclassic Mixtec Vienna Codex (Figure 34). Laxtunich Lintel 1 anticipates that depiction with its own account of macrocosm mixing with microcosm. Its claims are audacious, its intent self-interested: that seasonal rituals, politically inflected, arise from heroic acts of creation, and that the cosmos itself affirms human hierarchy.


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Figure 34. Vienna Codex, p. 47, the Wind God raises the watery sky (Anders et al. 1992:facsimile).


Acknowledgements. Justin Kerr gave free use of his photographs, to our lasting gratitude. Earlier versions of this essay were presented in two fora: in April 2015, by Houston, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and by the current set of authors at the European Mayanist Meetings, Moscow, Russia, October 2016, at the invitation of our friend, Dmitri Beliaev. Marc Zender was most helpful with sources about Comalcalco; Christian Prager, too, helped with a citation. “CMHI” is the code preferred by Ian Graham for citation of volumes in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions.



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