Secrets of the Painted King List: Recovering the Early History of the Snake Dynasty

by Simon Martin (University of Pennsylvania Museum)

Twenty years ago, I wrote a commentary on an intriguing set of codex-style vessels known as the Dynastic Vases (Martin 1997). Twelve in number, each of these cylindrical pots is painted with the same list of kings from the kaanul “Snake[-Place]” dynasty, supplying names, titles, and dates for their elevation to power.[1] The length of the sequence varies from vessel to vessel depending on its size, with the fullest version of 19 rulers appearing on the example labeled K6751 in the Kerr Archive ( and now to be found in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Figure 1). At least seven of their names match those seen on carved monuments, offering clear potential to draw alignments between the two sources. Indeed, beginning with a “founder” figure, the Dynastic Vases hold out the prospect of unlocking the entire early sequence of this important kingdom, constituting a record as important as the Temple of Cross Tablet has been for understanding the royal line of Palenque, or Altar Q and the Temple 26 Hieroglyphic Stairway for the sequence at Copan.

Fig.1 Painted King K6751 copy

Figure 1. Roll-out image of K6751 (photograph by Justin Kerr).

As the earliest researchers to work on the Dynastic Vases realized, the chronology of the text, consisting only of Calendar Round dates without a tie to the Long Count, is flawed (Robicsek and Hales 1981:157-159). Day- and month-names are consistent, but variations in their coefficients produce a number of impossible combinations—some arising from the inventions of modern restorers, but others plainly the work of ancient scribes. Not only do coefficients for the same date vary from one vase to the next, they even differ on vases decorated by the same painter (for the identification of four such painters see Martin 1997:849-850). Corrections can be attempted, but the true value always remains in doubt. All this made it impossible to pin down an “original” error-free scheme in 1997— but the difficulties ran even deeper. Where we knew of accession dates for the kings on monuments they did not correspond to those on the vessels. Indeed, dates conflicted to such a degree in some cases that they could not be placed at any point within their respective reigns. Even worse, the kings on the vases did not appear in anything like their expected order, with two attested Snake rulers from the Early Classic missing altogether. Incomplete, scrambled, and adrift in time, there seemed to be no possibility of reconciling the painted and carved versions. There was little choice but to project the list into a deeply archaic, or even legendary, past that far predated the historical one. Of the familiar names seen on the vessels not one of them would be a character we knew, all instead forebears from which later kings took their names.

Yet, despite two decades of pessimism on the matter, I am now sure that the Dynastic Vase sequence is a historical one, and that the timeframe covered by those 19 reigns falls within the Early Classic period. This paper explains how this change of heart came about, and why the painted king list is still a long way from giving up all its secrets.

* * *

There was always one feature on K6751 that kept a potential link to the historical kings alive. Towards the end of the text, filling the positions M2-M4, there is a Distance Number that counts forward a little over 104 years to the date 2 Akbal 11 Uo (Martin 1997:862-863).[2] This count can only realistically connect the accession of Ruler 19 on 9 Imix 9 Yaxkin (K5-L5)—an event expressed, like all others, as (u)-CH’AM[K’AWIIL]-wa uch’amaw k’awiil “he takes/receives K’awiil”—to a new event given at N4. There we find what appears to be OCH-HA’[bi]-hi ochha’bih “water (and) road-enters”—a conjoined form of the metaphors for death we otherwise see as ochbih or ochha’. Yet this verb has no subject. Where we would expect to find one we encounter the common term yu-k’i-bi yuk’ib “his drinking vessel,” followed by a personal name. If someone dies who is it? The long DN presumably rules out Ruler 19, meaning that the deceased person either goes unstated, is meant to be a reference to the vessel as a tomb offering, or refers to the vessel owner himself. As an aside, we find that person’s name on another codex-style vessel, K6754 (which has a very different narrative scene), suggesting that both pots may have come from the same looted burial.

Like all our dates, 2 Akbal 11 Uo is untethered in the Long Count. However, we might suspect that the purpose of the extended Distance Number is to connect the past with contemporary time. If so, the best fit would be in 696, since this is the era in which codex-style ware was in production. While the 104-year tally does not link the two Calendar Rounds correctly, if we use it to count backwards from 696 we reach 592, which is one of the years in which 9 Imix 9 Yaxkin can be placed. The 592 date is interesting because it falls within the reign of Scroll Serpent, a Snake king with the same name as Ruler 19, seen at L6. While this whole section is far from transparent, it does give some slim suggestion that Ruler 19 might be the historical Scroll Serpent.

So the matter rested for two decades. It was not to see change until widely dispersed finds at El Peru, Naranjo, Uaxactun, and Calakmul allowed Dmitri Beliaev and myself to identify a hitherto unknown Snake king called K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ Aj Saakil (Martin and Beliaev 2017). K6751 made an early contribution here, since Ruler 16 from the list (K1b) has a matching K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ name, demonstrating that this was a form used by the Kaanul dynasty. Elsewhere, Naranjo Stela 47 tells us that K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’—there under the name Aj Saakil—directly preceded the king known as Sky Witness (Martin et al. 2016) (see Figure 6). This is fully consistent with the historical dates we have, since K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ was active in 556, while references to Sky Witness’s reign appear between 561 and 572. The relevance of all this is that the name of Sky Witness matches that of Ruler 17 (K2b). With the known dates for Scroll Serpent falling between 579 and 611, and the sure knowledge of a different Snake king ruling before him in 573 (Martin and Grube 2000:104), we can see that Rulers 16, 17, and 19 correctly follow the sequence on the monuments (Figure 2). By now there was cause to wonder, might the painted king list be historical after all?

Fig.2 Painted King

Figure 2. Comparison of names on K6751 with those from the monumental record (drawings by Simon Martin).

The complex story of the Snake kingdom, in which its Early Classic capital at Dzibanche (Velásquez 2004a, 2008a) shifted to one at Calakmul in the Late Classic (Martin 2005), has recently come into much greater focus. Thanks to the identification of Kaanul as a toponym at Dzibanche (Martin and Velásquez 2016:27-30) and the discovery of two remarkable texts at Xunantunich that explain the shift as the result of civil war (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b), we can talk with more confidence about where the dynasty arose and why its transfer took place. If K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ Aj Saakil was ruling at Dzibanche in 556—which all the circumstantial evidence would lead us to believe—then we are compelled to investigate Building VI Lintel 3 at the site (Martin and Beliaev 2017:5-6, Table 1). Carrying one of only two firm dates at Dzibanche, Lintel 3 records the Period Ending of, which took place in 554 (Figure 3). Unfortunately, it does not name its protagonist, who would have appeared on one or both of the preceding lintels, which are badly damaged in one case and destroyed in the other. However, it does record the king’s accession as a CHUM[*mu]-la-ji-ya KAL[*TE’]-ma-*li “seated into kaloomte’[-ship]”. This marks the subject’s elevation into the highest status ascribed to Classic Maya rulers, entirely in keeping with the powerful political position the Snake kingdom enjoyed at this time.

Fig.3 Painted King

Figure 3. Dzibanche Building VI Lintel 3 (photograph by Peter Harrison).

The syntax on Lintel 3 is not entirely straightforward and this, together with the less-than-perfect preservation of the wood into which it is carved, means that there are different ways to reconstruct the two Distance Numbers that fix the accession in time. After accounting for shrinkage and erosion to the three beams I made a relatively small, seemingly unimportant, amendment of 100 days to the chronology that placed the accession to the Long Count position in 550.[3] Any setting in this general timeframe would make K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ a viable candidate, but the true significance of this date emerges only after comparing its Calendar Round with the one given for the accession of Ruler 16 on K6751, since both are 7 Lamat 6 Uo (Figure 4). This cannot be coincidental and demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that Ruler 16 and K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ are not namesakes but one-in-the-same person. It would follow that Ruler 17 is the Sky Witness we see on monuments at Los Alacranes, Naranjo, Caracol, Yo’okop, Dzibanche, Resbalon, and Pol Box, and Ruler 19 the Scroll Serpent who appears at Calakmul, Palenque, Naranjo, and Caracol.[4] This allows me to say something that I could not in 1997—that the vase text does include rulers known from inscribed monuments and that the entire painted king list fits within historical time. What are the implications of this turnaround? Can the outstanding, not inconsiderable, problems be resolved?


Fig.4 Painted King

Figure 4.  7 Lamat 6 Uo at J6 and (u)ch’am(aw) k’awiil k’ahk’ ti’ ch’ich’ at K1 on K6751 (conjoined image from a photograph courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum).

* * *

True codex-style wares were produced in the heart of the central southern lowlands, at a site in the domain of a k’uhul chatahn winik—a lordly title with deep roots in this region—which was under the direct influence of Calakmul. Three Dynastic Vase sherds have been found at Calakmul itself, demonstrating that the listing was directly pertinent to the regime there, doubtless naming the ancestors to which its kings traced their origin and legitimacy (Delvendahl 2005; Martin 2008a, 2012:140; García Barrios 2012:85-87). This is important when we think about the meaning of these lists to a contemporary audience. Their primary purpose was not documentation so much as lending special value and prestige to the pot, and the somewhat careless treatment of the dates must be seen in this light. The presence of at least one correct date could indicate that the Ur-text was accurate, and only garbled in the process of copying and re-copying over time.[5] We can now highlight the three major difficulties that stand between us and any comprehensive understanding of the Dynastic Vases, all arising from the divergences between painted and carved sources: (1) conflicts in the sequence, (2) missing kings, and (3) dating discrepancies. From here on we enter speculative terrain.

The scrambled order of kings on the Dynastic Vases once seemed like a significant obstacle, yet it is overcome with ease if Ruler 10 (Yuknoom Ch’een), Ruler 13 (Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’), Ruler 15 (Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’), and Ruler 18 (Yuknoom Ti’ Chan) were not the seventh century kings we know by those names but earlier namesakes instead. Indeed, the now-established sequence of Rulers 16, 17, and 19 requires that they be so. Moreover, we probably know the first of these characters, since a ruler called Yuknoom Ch’een—a predecessor to the great Late Classic king of that name—is the protagonist of the Dzibanche Captive Stairway (Nalda 2004; Velásquez 2004b, 2005) (Figure 5).[6] This monument cannot be dated with certainty, but it is appropriately early in terms of style. This is most evident in the large identifying name-glyphs the prisoners wear on the back of their belts and their unusual wavy hair, for which the closest parallel is a captive pictured on Uaxactun Stela 19, dating to 357 (Martin 2009; see Graham 1986:177-178).[7]

Fig.5 Yuknoom Ch'een I & IIFigure 5. Names of the earlier and later kings using the name of Yuknoom Ch’een: a) Ruler 10, K6751 (H5); b) Yuknoom Ch’een I, Dzibanche M.5 (A3); c) Yuknoom Ch’een II, codex-style vase from Tomb 4, Calakmul Structure II; d) Yuknoom Ch’een II, Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 East (photographs provided by the Los Angeles County Museum and Dorie Reents-Budet, drawings by Simon Martin).

If this problem has evaporated an important one remains, and it is our second major difficulty. The positions in the sequence occupied by Rulers 15 and 18 are precisely those where we would expect to find our missing kings Tuun K’ab Hix (537-546) and Yax Yopaat (573). Explaining their absence is a trickier proposition.

Fig.6 NAR 47 List

Naranjo Stela 47 explicitly describes Tuun K’ab Hix, K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ Aj Saakil, Sky Witness, and Scroll Serpent as the chan tz’akbu(ul) k’uhul kaanul ajaw “four holy Snake[-Place] kings in order” (Martin et al. 2016:617) (Figure 6). It will be noted that there is no mention of an intervening ruler between Sky Witness and Scroll Serpent—a position taken at Dzibanche by Yax Yopaat and on K6751 by Yuknoom Ti’ Chan. This suggests that Stela 47 refers less to a strict list of successors than it does to the four overlords who directly supervised the Naranjo king during his long reign. The 18th king, whatever his identity, may not have ruled long enough to consolidate his power and for this, or some other reason, was not acknowledged as an overlord by Naranjo.

Figure 6. Four Snake kings on Naranjo Stela 47: Tuun K’ab Hix (A3b), Aj Saakil (A4a), Sky Witness (A4b), and Scroll Serpent (A5a) (drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine).

The absence of Tuun K’ab Hix is a bigger issue, since he was clearly a substantial figure who, in addition to installing that same Naranjo king in 546, lost a subordinate in a conflict with Yaxchilan in 537 and sent a daughter to marry the ruler of La Corona in 520 (Martin 2008b:4). The Dynastic Vase sequence cannot claim to represent the greatest kings of the Snake dynasty if he is omitted. A possible explanation here is that the Kaanul regime contained more than one lineage, perhaps even parallel lines that ruled from different centers (Marc Zender, pers. comm. 2017). The latter has a certain appeal because of the appearance of non-Kaanul toponym with Scroll Serpent in 593, raising the possibility of greater locational complexity to the kingdom’s history (Martin 2005:7; Martin and Velásquez 2016:26). If more than one lineage were involved, then the Dynastic Vases might represent only the branch from which the Calakmul kings claimed descent. Tuun K’ab Hix and Yax Yopaat would belong to a different patriline and be of no interest to the scribe who composed the master text of the vases. While this idea has its attractions, the twin royal seats portion of it is weakened by the appearance of Yax Yopaat at Dzibanche, where we also find evidence for K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’, Sky Witness, and Yuknoom Ch’een I. But another option is available to us. Although K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ Aj Saakil is sometimes represented by his full name, he is more commonly identified by one or the other of its two parts—which effectively serve as alternates. The same dual-naming practice recurs in the eighth century at Calakmul, where Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil is called by a different appellative outside the city and its closest affiliates. If this were a feature repeated on the painted king list then both our missing kings might be present on K6751, but masked under different names. In this scenario Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (Ruler 15 at J5b-I6) would be another name for Tuun K’ab Hix and Yuknoom Ti’ Chan (Ruler 18 at K4) an alternative moniker for Yax Yopaat. Without a way to confirm or contradict either option the question must remain in abeyance for the present, with the missing kings left unexplained.

This brings us to the third major difficulty, the chronological divergences between the painted and inscribed sequences. Two instances are now particularly salient. After the accession of K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ the K6751 text moves to that of Sky Witness, an event that it assigns to the Calendar Round 10 Caban 10 Pop. However, this combination does not occur within the 561-572 span we currently have for that king, with the two closest placements falling either much too early in 543 or much too late in 595. A second case comes where K6751 puts the accession of Scroll Serpent to the previously noted 9 Imix 9 Yaxkin, whereas Calakmul Stela 33 clearly states that he became an ajaw on 11 Caban 10 Ch’en (Martin 1997:862). The latter is fixed to (579), while the closest point the painted version can be placed is (592), some 13 years later. For the inauguration date of K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ to be entirely correct and others not simply awry, but wildly so, must give us pause.

Are we, in fact, asking the right question of the data? As we have seen, K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’s accession was not into the standard status of ajaw, but specifically into that of kaloomte’ (Figure 7a). As my colleagues David Stuart and Marc Zender (pers. comms. 2017) have urged me to consider, might these ill-fitting dates refer to separate ceremonies that mark progress to that exalted rank? This kind of statement is extremely rare and otherwise only known from Tikal, where it occurs in the inaugurations of the kings Jasaw Chan K’awiil in 682, Yik’in Chan K’awiil in 734, and Yax Nuun Ahiin II in 768 (Figure 7b). One further instance at Palenque, a differently phrased back-reference to the accession of K’inich Kan Bahlam II in 684, exhausts the list. That Dzibanche, Tikal, and Palenque were all powerful hegemons when these phrases appear gives ample reason to see this expression as indicative of special power and authority. In the case of Yik’in Chan K’awiil and K’inich Kan Bahlam, at least, other inaugural statements make clear that they became an ajaw on the same day as they acquired kaloomte’ status—there was no delayed ceremony in their cases.

Fig.7 Chumlaj Kaloomte' 2Figure 7. Seating into kaloomte’[-ship]: a) Dzibanche Building IV Lintel 3 (pI2-J2a); a) Tikal Stela 21 (B10-A11) (photographs by Peter Harrison and William Coe).

Nevertheless, we do have an interesting parallel elsewhere, though to find it we must travel far from the central lowlands to the eastern periphery of the Maya world. In 724 K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat became the king of Quirigua under the auspices of Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil of Copan—an event expressed by means a selection of different verbs, including uch’am(aw) k’awiil “he receives/takes K’awiil” (Looper 2003:Fig.2.1a). But 14 years later, in 738, he seized his overlord and beheaded him. At this point he underwent a second uch’amaw k’awiil event and, although the relevant text on Stela J (H5-G6) does not say so directly, it must be at this point he begins to use the kaloomte’ title that, as a vassal, would previously have been denied to him.[8] Here is a better precedent for what could be happening on the Dynastic Vases, if under very different circumstances.

It is certainly possible that Scroll Serpent became an ajaw in 579, but a kaloomte’ only in 592—perhaps after some notable political or military accomplishment. This might also motivate the inclusion of the kaloomte’ title in his short identifying phrase on K6751, a feature only otherwise associated with Ruler 2.[9] When it comes to Sky Witness, it is clearly much harder to argue that he acquired the highest title in 595. It is true that his name appears as the protagonist of an attack on Palenque in 599, which has long been enigmatic, and conceivably the two dates are related in some way (though see Note 13). But at least until that anomaly can be explained, it is easier to interpret 10 Caban 10 Pop as a straightforward copying error.[10]

A further idea, developed from other evidence, is that at certain places and times the Classic Maya operated a system of dual-rulership, consisting of a senior and junior king. We have a number of occasions on which two contemporary characters carry full emblem glyphs, whether as father and son, or as brothers. Rather than an honorific paving the way to future power, these shared titles could indicate joint governmental responsibilities (Houston 2012:171), especially at powerful centers where administrative workloads may have been higher than most, and a greater-than-normal emphasis put on unquestioned succession.

A good example turns up at Calakmul itself, where the reigning king Yuknoom Ch’een II elevates his presumed son, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ II, to full k’uhul kaanul ajaw status by 662, when he was just 14 years of age (Martin 2009, 2014:356). Yuknoom Ch’een, almost 62 at the time and perhaps not expecting to live too much longer, seems here to be establishing not an heir-apparency but a junior kingship. But even for co-kings closer in age one key distinction would remain: only the senior figure would carry the kaloomte’ title. On Ucanal Stela 4 we see two lords, one identified as a k’uhul k’anwitznal kaloomte’, the other as a k’uhul k’anwitznal ajaw (Martin 2014:76). Though this is a late monument, this might not be a new system but an existing one newly brought to the fore. Similarly, at Motul de San José a long-established monarch is joined by a younger partner with a full emblem glyph, someone who acquires the kaloomte’ title only after the senior king’s death (Tokovinine and Zender 2012:46). The same might be said for the young lords bearing emblems who perform on the Bonampak Murals (Houston 2012:167). All were ranked beneath the true king and kaloomte’ holder. A further instance could be relevant and lend still more credence to this scenario, since it comes from a fragment of inscribed vessel discovered at Dzibanche (Velásquez and Balanzario 2016). It names a k’uhul kaanul ajaw who is also a sukuwinik ch’ok kaloomte’ “Older Brother Prince, Kaloomte’”. We know from comparable cases at Palenque and La Corona that statements of age-seniority such as this signify that there are two brothers—one the ruler, the other the baah ch’ok destined to succeed him. In a kaloomte’-bearing kingdom that junior person would likely also be an emblem-carrying k’uhul ajaw. We find precisely this dual status held by Upakal K’inich, the younger brother and heir of K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb III of Palenque, who might better be considered his junior co-king (Miller and Martin 2004:232; Stuart 2005:40, 189).[11]

These features find an interesting and potentially important parallel in the Postclassic Maya highlands. Bartolomé de Las Casas (1909:615-617) describes an intricate structure of governance for the K’iche’ polity based at Utatlan: consisting of a supreme king as well as a king-elect, each from a separate lineage, whose sons held the ranks of major and minor “captain,” presumably a military command.[12] Each lord would advance in turn from one position to the next up the hierarchical chain (though if they were judged insufficiently capable they could be passed over). This system ensured that whoever reached ultimate power would have served in all the lower offices, and therefore have both maturity and experience in governing as well as in leading armies. Postclassic Maya kingship has always been set apart from its predecessor, but perhaps this practice had deeper roots in the culture. It might not have been a ubiquitous practice for the Classic Maya but, rather a situational strategy that met the needs of particular times and circumstances.

Whether this has any relevance at all to the conundrums of Dynastic Vases remains unclear, but it is one of the few ways that the seemingly aberrant dates of K6751 might be intentional and, more or less, correct. Conceivably, their mismatched positions allude to a senior-junior kingship system for the Snake dynasty at Dzibanche—in which, after the death of the standing kaloomte’ the title passed to the current ajaw, and a new candidate was drawn into that status. The hypothesis allows for a delayed, enhanced accession, but also makes it possible that this powerful polity was continuously ruled by a monarch of the highest rank, without the lacuna that is otherwise implied by a new solo king working his way toward kaloomte’ status.[13]

But before we get too enthusiastic about this scenario, we would do well to acknowledge an impediment that might be enough to dissuade us from it—in this case at least. We must accept, for example, that junior kings could perform Period Endings, as Scroll Serpent does for (583) in the retrospective text on Calakmul Stela 33 (Martin 1996). More significantly, the same inscription moves on to the (593) ceremony, without mentioning the supposedly key date 9 Imix 9 Yaxkin date we have on K6751. Whether relevant or not, it should also be noted that he carries no kaloomte’ title here, or in another inscription recalling of the 593 commemoration on Calakmul Stela 8.[14]

* * *

With the 550 date now in hand, one might attempt a reconstruction of the chronology for the Dynastic Vases (though I confess some reluctance to do so, given the continuing uncertainties). The scheme set out in Table 1 works its way back in time using the minimum number of required corrections, alighting on the next available Calendar Round position in each case.[15] Since any reign longer than 52 years will slip through such a calculation, additional columns have been introduced at two points where a very long reign seems possible (there may be one other). A dating scheme without longer reigns puts the accession of the dynastic founder Skyraiser to the year 232. This is probably too conservative. If we instead count back from 550 using an average reign-length of 22.5 years—which is derived from the Copan and Palenque sequences, as well as 881 years of English and British history (Martin 1997:853-854)—we reach the year 212. Doing the same calculation from 592, the best date available for Ruler 19, would put the origin of the dynasty still earlier, to about 187. Interestingly, all of these estimates would make the Kaanul line of Dzibanche less ancient than its great rival, the Mutul dynasty of Tikal. Similar calculations performed on Tikal’s count of kings put its founding before 100 (Martin 2003:5, n.6). This differential is clear when we consider that K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’s reign as the 16th king of Dzibanche overlapped with that of Wak Chan K’awiil, who was 21st in the Tikal line.

Microsoft Word - *Secrets of the Painted King Table 1.docx

To conclude, the Dynastic Vase sequence, against the odds and despite all its errors and unexplained anomalies, has a basis in history and presents the first 19 kings of the Snake dynasty. The texts that seemed so deficient at one time, have begun to suggest that only our understanding of them is inadequate. The direct link between this sequence and a monument at Dzibanche gives us added confidence that this city was indeed the capital of the Early Classic Snake kings, in line with the evidence of names, titles, and a Snake toponym already uncovered there. Though other options have found favor, this is good evidence that the origins of this important dynasty were in modern-day Quintana Roo, Mexico. If we can fathom the puzzles that remain—rather than be bamboozled by numerous chak chay[16]—we might yet cast some light on the structure of the Snake kingdom in its first incarnation. We must hope that future epigraphic finds, from Dzibanche and elsewhere, will ultimately unravel its secrets. If the history of research thus far is anything to go by, there will be more surprises ahead, and yet more opportunities to rethink the “Serpent State.”



[Note 1] The ending on toponyms spelled by a la suffix is as yet unknown and should properly be rendered –Vl. However, in line with recent publications this paper will from here on use Kaanul, with no implication that this is correct.

[Note 2] Here the winikhaab or “K’atun” unit has been suppressed or obscured by the i-u-ti-ya i uhtiiy “then (it) happened” verb. The spelling of the month Uo here receives the unique spelling of wo-hi woh, the form in use in Yucatan when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century (Martin 1997:854). An alternative to the Classic form IHK’-AT ihk’at that we see in other spellings in the inscriptions—even elsewhere on the Dynastic Vases (see K6751 J6b)—the terms presumably coexisted, but woh may have been the vernacular form for the vase painters. The strangeness of this section is increased by the proportions and alignment of the glyphs, which have the awkward task of filling the skewed remaining space at the end of the text. The painter seems to have stopped and restarted his work, possibly adding some part—the possessed vase and name phrase in particular—on a later occasion.

[Note 3] This scheme reconstructs a base-date of, 6 Ik 10 Kankin (552) from a Distance Number of 1.4.18 that counts from there to the Period Ending, 9 Ahau 3 Uayeb (554). A second Distance Number of 2.12.14 links the base-date (which likely marks the building’s dedication) to the preceding accession event on, 7 Lamat 6 Uo (550) (Martin and Beliaev 2017:Table 1).

[Note 4] This finding suggests that we take a fresh look at the Snake royal names from the Dzibanche region and specifically the potential versions of Sky Witness’s moniker. Blocks CX15-CX17 of the Resbalon Hieroglyphic Stairway, associated with a Snake emblem glyph, provide the core elements of his name in the form u-?UT[T650] CHAN-na (Martin 1997:861). Stela 3 at Pol Box gives a closely related version, with the addition of a hand-based compound that can also be recognized on Block CX14 from Resbalon (Esparza and Pérez 2009:9-10). Octavio Esparza proposed that the hand was a later-disused YUK logogram, elaborated with no and ma to represent yuknoom. The case for this is much strengthened by an inscribed bone recovered from an important burial in the Temple of the Cormorants at Dzibanche (Velásquez 2008b). This also appears to have a Sky Witness name, this time introduced by a clear yuknoom: yu[ku]-no-ma ?UT-tu[T650-CHAN]-na. Returning to Resbalon, we can now say that the fullest name appears there as ?YUK-no-ma u-?UT[T650]-CHAN K’AHK’-BAHLAM?. As Erik Velásquez (2008b) suggests, the tomb of Sky Witness—richly equipped with jade—has surely been found at Dzibanche.

[Note 5] See Carter (2016:350-351) for a discussion of some of the copying errors on the Dynastic Vases.

[Note 6] The value ?CH’EEN is represented by two logograms, one a bird’s head, the other a more variable sign that focuses on bones and dark places (Vogt and Stuart 2005:157-163). Originally, the bird was distinguished by a tri-lobed eyelid and what often looks like a bundle of sticks on its facing left-side. However, by Late Classic times both features could be dispensed with and a pared down raptor-head suffices to spell the word. Nevertheless, Figure 5c shows two faint strokes through the eye that may allude to the lobed form.

[Note 7] Several of the component blocks from this stairway carry Calendar Round dates, the clearest being 5 Chicchan 3 Yaxkin (seen twice), 6 Men 18 Pax, and perhaps 10 Chicchan? 18 Xul (see Velásquez 2004b). Even without a tie to the Long Count, calculation shows that if these positions are correct they are quite widely spaced in time, spanning in excess of 20 years. The Long Count counterparts that fit a projected reign for Ruler 10, as well as meshing with the style parameters offered by Uaxactun Stela 19, fall into the second column of potential correlations in Table 1 of this posting.

[Note 8] Altar M is the earliest known product of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat’s reign and carries a text describing its own making in 734, four years prior to the conflict with Copan (Looper 2003:59-61). Oddly, it is owned by some other person (an ancestor or father?) and the king supervises its dedication. His titles are damaged, but appear to include the nohol kaloomte’ “South Kaloomte’” epithet he bears on Stela J (C14-D14). Nevertheless, I am reluctant to see this as evidence for his use of this high status prior to the split with Copan. Either this monument is deliberately retrospective, or indicates that K’ahk’ Tiliw had politically detached himself prior to the decisive clash.

[Note 9] We have no knowledge of this early period, but ascribing the kaloomte’ epithet to Ruler 2 (a feature of most Dynastic Vases) may serve to distinguish him from the founder as the first king to claim or be ascribed that rank.

[Note 10] The easiest amendment would be to the initial coefficient, and a number of alternatives fall within the required 556-582 range: *3 Caban 10 Pop for (575), *4 Caban 10 Pop for (563), *7 Caban 10 Pop for (579), *8 Caban 10 Pop for (567), *12 Caban 10 Pop for (571), and *13 Caban 10 Pop for (559). Selecting an alternative coefficient for Pop (0, 5, or 15), while keeping 10 Caban, produces no eligible results. In Table 1, I use *12 Caban for the arbitrary reason that it is the simplest copying error for 10 Caban available.

[Note 11] Additionally, there is the case presented by Naranjo Stelae 18 and 46, in which two ch’ok—certainly brothers, perhaps even twins—were promoted during the reign of their presumed father K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chaahk (Martin et al. in press). The manner in which the order of their names is reversed on each monument, as if to avoid prioritizing one over the other, suggests that they were equals intended to be future co-rulers of some kind.

[Note 12] I am indebted to Frauke Sachse (pers. comm. 2017) for pointing out this parallel.

[Note 13] This system might also offer a way of understanding the 599 date for Sky Witness at Palenque. Theoretically, this character could be a later namesake of the 17th ruler, a sub-king of Scroll Serpent who we otherwise have no record of.

[Note 14] The later interest in Scroll Serpent could well be motivated because he was the father of Yuknoom Ch’een II, the first Snake king to rule at Calakmul (Martin and Grube 2000:106). A damaged Distance Number on Stela 33 might connect to the birth of Yuknoom Ch’een on (600), the king who commissioned this monument in 657. It could also be significant that Scroll Serpent completes the K6751 list. Although patently not the last Snake king before the reign of Yuknoom Ch’een II, the painted king list may nevertheless draw attentional attention to this putative father.

[Note 15] Amendments were made by comparing the full range of vases in search of workable combinations (although several are so overpainted as to be worthless for this exercise), or identifying coefficients that can be considered canonical rather than exceptional. At times the process amounts to no more than guesswork. It is noticeable that necessary corrections cluster toward the early part of the sequence (i.e. Rulers 1-6 in Table 1), possibly a hint that later dates are more reliable.

[Note 16] A close relative of the herring.


References Cited

Carter, Nicholas. 2014. Sources and Scales of Classic Maya History. In Thinking, Recording, and Writing History in the Ancient World, edited by Kurt F. Raaflaub, pp. 340-371. Wiley Blackwell, Chichester.

Delvendahl, Kai.  2005. “Las sedes del poder. Arquitectura, espacio, función y sociedad de los conjuntos palaciegos del Clásico Tardío en el área maya evaluados desde la arqueología y la iconografía”. Tesis de doctorado en Antropología, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

Esparza, Octavio Q., and Vania E. Pérez. 2009. Archaeological and Epigraphic Studies in Pol Box, Quintana Roo. The PARI Journal 9(3):1-16.

García Barrios, Ana. 2012. Análisis Iconográfico Preliminar de Fragmentos de las Vasijas Estilo Códice Procedentes de Calakmul. Estudios de Cultura Maya 37:65-97.

Graham, Ian. 1986. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Vol. 5, Part 3: Uaxactun. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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

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

Houston, Stephen. 2012. The Good Prince: Transition, Texting and Moral Narrative in the Murals of Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22(2):153-175.

Las Casas, Bartholmé. 1909. Apologética historia de las Indias. 2 Vols. Nueva Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, Vol. 13. Madrid.

Looper, Mathew G. 2003.  Lightning Warrior: Maya Art and Kingship at Quiriguá. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Martin, Simon. 1996. Calakmul en el Registro Epigráfico. In: Proyecto Arqueológico de la Biosfera de Calakmul: Temporada 1993-94 by Ramón Carrasco V. et al., Centro Regional de Yucatán, INAH, Mérida.

_______________. 1997. The Painted King List: A Commentary on Codex-style Dynastic Vases. In The Maya Vase Book, Volume 5: A Corpus of Roll-out Photographs, edited by Barbara Kerr and Justin Kerr, pp. 846-867. Kerr Associates, New York.

_______________. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff, pp. 3-45. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series, School of American Research Press and James Curry, Santa Fe and Oxford.

_______________. 2005. Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. Precolumbian Art Research Institute (PARI) Journal 6(2):5-15.

_______________. 2008a. “Reading Calakmul: Epigraphy of the Proyecto Arqueológico de Calakmul 1994-2008”. Paper presented at the VI Mesa Redonda de Palenque, November 16-21 2008, Palenque, Mexico.

_______________. 2008b. Wives and Daughters on the Dallas Altar. <>

_______________. 2009. “On the Trail of the Serpent State: The Unusual History of the Kan Polity”. Paper presented at the 33rd Maya Meetings at Texas “History and Politics of the Snake Kingdom”, February 23rd-March 1st 2009. University of Texas at Austin.

_______________. 2012. Escritura. In Calakmul: Patrimonio de la Humanidad, pp.155-175. Grupo Azabache, Mexico City.

_______________. 2014. The Classic Maya Polity: An Epigraphic Approach to Reconstructing a Pre-Hispanic Political System. PhD thesis, University College London.

Martin, Simon, and Dmitri Beliaev. 2017. K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’: A New Snake King from the Early Classic Period. The PARI Journal 17(3):1-7.

Martin, Simon, Vilma Fialko, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Fredy Ramirez. 2016.             Contexto y texto de la Estela 47 de Naranjo-Sa’aal, Peten, Guatemala. In XXIX Simposio de investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala 2015, tomo II, pp. 615-628. Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, Instituto de Antropología e Historia, Asociación Tikal, Guatemala.

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

Martin, Simon, Alexandre Tokovinine, Elodie Trefel, and Vilma Fialko. In press. La Estela 46 de Naranjo Sa’al, Peten, Guatemala: hallazgo y texto jeroglífico.” In XXX Simposio de investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala 2016. Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, Instituto de Antropología e Historia, Asociación Tikal, Guatemala.

Martin, Simon, and Erik Velásquez García. 2016. Polities and Places: Tracing the Toponyms of the Snake Dynasty.  The PARI Journal 17(2):23-33.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. 2004. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London and New York.

Nalda, Enrique. 2004. Dzibanché: El context de los cautivos.  In Los Cautivos de Dzibanché, edited by Enrique Nalda, pp.13-55. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Robicsek, Francis, and Donald M. Hales. 1981. The Maya Book of the Dead, The Ceramic Codex. The Corpus of Codex-Style Ceramics of the Late Classic Period. University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville.

Stuart, David. 2005. The Inscriptions from Temple XIX at Palenque: A Commentary. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

Tokovinine, Alexandre, and Marc Zender. 2012. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San José in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San José: Politics, History, and Economics in a Maya Polity, edited by Antonia E. Foias and Kitty F. Emery, pp.30-66. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Velásquez García, Erik. 2004a. “Los posibles alcances territoriales de la influencia política de Dzibanché durante el Clásico temprano: nuevas alternativas para interpretar las menciones epigráficas tempranas sobre Kaan”. Paper presented at the V Mesa Redonda de Palenque, Palenque, Mexico.

_______________. 2004b. Los Escalones Jeroglíficos de Dzibanché. In Los Cautivos de Dzibanché, edited by Enrique Nalda, pp. 78-103. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

_______________. 2005. The Captives of Dzibanche. In The PARI Journal 6(2):1-4.

_______________. 2008a. Los posibles alcances territoriales de la influencia política de Dzibanché durante el Clásico temprano: Nuevas alternativas para interpretar las menciones históricas sobre la entidad política de Kan. In El Territorio Maya, Memoria de la Quinta Mesa Redonda de Palenque, edited/coordinated by Rodrigo Liendo Stuardo, pp. 323-352. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

_______________. 2008b. “En Busca de Testigo Cielo (ca. 561-572 d.C.): El Punzón de Hueso del Edificio de los Cormoranes de Dzibanché.” Paper presented at the VI Mesa Redonda de Palenque, November 16-21 2008, Palenque, Mexico.

Velásquez García, Erik, and Sandra Balanzario Granados. 2016. “Rulers of the Kanu’l Dynasty from the Perspective of Dzibanche, Quintana Roo, Mexico.” Paper presented at the 81st Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, April 6-10, Orlando, Florida.

Vogt, Evon Z., and David Stuart. 2005. Ritual Caves Among the Ancient and Modern Maya. In In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use, edited by James E. Brady and Keith M. Prufer, pp. 155-185. University of Texas Press, Austin.





A Note on the Sign for TZ’IHB, “Writing, Painting” 2

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

tz'ib glyphs

Figure 1. Spellings of tz’ihb, “writing, painting” (tz’i-bi and tz’i-ba)

Many years ago I wrote on the decipherment of the word tz’ihb, “writing, painting,” in ancient Maya texts (Stuart 1987, 1990). This usually appears in the hieroglyphs as the syllabic sequences tz’i-bi or tz’i-ba, two spellings that probably reflect slight differences in pronunciation and morphology (Figure 1). “Painting” glyphs appear in a variety of settings, including the title for scribes and painters, aj tz’ihb, as well as in glyphs that introduce artists’ signatures (“it is the painting of…”). The most common appears of the term is in the Dedicatory Formula on vessels and other painted objects, where tz’ihbaal specifies the thing’s mode of decoration (painted vs. carved).

From time to time we also find a well-known and visually transparent logogram with the likely reading TZ’IHB (Figure 2, with the -ba suffix), showing a hand daintily holding a brush or stylus (Stuart 1987:2-3). The position of the fingers replicates the distinctive “pinky up” hand gesture that served as a standard representation for artisans, including stone-carvers as well (see Stone and Zender 2011:115)(Figure 3). The logogram’s clear visual connection to the imagery of scribes or painters was recognized long ago, when the Tikal-area bowl on which it appears (K772) was first published (see Robicsek and Hales 1983:135).


Figure 2. The title Aj Tz’ihb, “Painter,” from K772. Detail of photograph by Justin Kerr.

dainty hands

Figure 3. The “dainty hands” of Maya painters and carvers. Left, detail of a scribe from an unprovenced vase; Right, detail of the Emiliano Zapata Panel, Palenque region.


Assigning the hand-with-brush sign a TZ’IHB value has always seemed very reasonable on the face of it, but it is important to note that the sign is very rare, and no confirmation of via a phonetic substitution has ever been found (of course, the -ba suffix on the title in Figure 2 is highly suggestive). I have long been struck by the rarity of the sign, which seems especially odd considering the high frequency of tz’ihb in the Dedicatory Formula.  At any rate, until now this “writing” sign, like many in Maya epigraphy, remained a reasonable yet unconfirmed hypothesis, a good example of a graphically transparent sign (Note 1).

San Bartolo TZ'IHB sign

Figure 4. A possible early example of TZ’IHB from San Bartolo, Pinturas Complex,  Xbalanque phase, ca. 300 BCE. Photograph by D. Stuart.

We can point to only a handful of examples of this probable TZ’IHB logogram  One especially important example appears in a Late Preclassic text from San Bartolo, dating to approximately 300 BCE (Figure 4). Again the context of the surrounding glyphs in unclear, making a solid reading of TZ’IHB difficult. But the similarity to later forms from the Classic period make the identification likely — note the-ever so-slightly extended pinky finger at the right of the sign (see Tedlock 2010:26-27). Of course finding a sign for “writing” or “painting” as early as 300 BCE has important implications for considering the origins of writing itself in the Maya area.

With the recent discovery of a new text at La Corona, Guatemala, we can I think confirm the long-suspected reading. Block 9 from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 was discovered in 2012 as part of a row of inscribed stones in from of Structure 13R-10 (Ponce 2013). The block was clearly not in its original setting, having been taken by the ancient Maya from some prior monument and and re-set in HS 2 as part of a mixed assortment of sculpted stones. Block 9 records the historical date 11 Caban 10 Zotz, or (May 1, 679 CE), when a royal woman from the Kaanul dynasty (the “Snake Kingdom”) arrived at La Corona to marry the local ruler named K’inich ? Yook (Freidel and Guenter 2003, Martin 2008). The very same event was already known from another La Corona text, Panel 6, where she is described as the daughter of the great Kaanul king Yuknoom Ch’een.

tzib logogram

Figure 5. Names of a royal woman at La Corona, possibly Ix Tz’ihb Winkil. Drawings by D. Stuart.

Looking closely at her names in the two inscriptions, we see slightly different spellings (Figure 5). On HS2, shown at left, the sequence is IX-tz’i-bi-WINKIL?, perhaps for Ix Tz’ihb Winkil, “Lady Painting-Person(?)” (Note 2). This is a personal name, not a title, so I would shy away from interpreting this as some reference to the woman’s activities or court function. On Panel 6 her name appears with what looks to be a hand-like sign in place of tz’i-bi. The glyph is somewhat eroded, but a long and thin element held by the hand is just barely discernible (Figure 4b). This must be a version of our logogram reading TZ’IHB, a later variant of the sign identified on a visual basis many years ago on the bowl from the Tikal area.

This new substitution at La Corona confirms what we long suspected — that the hand-with-brush sign is the TZ’IHB logogram. And it shows us also that even when epigraphers are confident about guessing a particular reading, it is still gratifying to come across clear backing evidence for it many years later.


Note 1. Stone and Zender (2010:115) illustrate two examples of the TZ’IHB logogram, including the well-known one on on K722. Their second example shows a hand a distinctive gesture holding an inverted ocote torch, with the ‘ink’ or ‘soot’ (SIBIK) element below.  If TZ’IHB, this is an unusually elaborate version, and I wonder if it could be it a distinct sign altogether.

Note 2. The last sign in her name is T89, which I’ve recently presented as a logogram reading WINKIL, a term that refers to a class of human-like supernaturals and often used in names and titles of elite individuals (Stuart 2014). The translation of win(i)k-il is a bit challenging since it is an abstracted noun derived from winik, “person,” and “being” seems too general; “supernatural person” seems to be the sense of it. The woman’s name, Ix Tz’ihb Winkil, if that is the correct reading, may refer to a supernatural scribe patron.

References Cited

Coe, Michael D., and Justin Kerr. 1997.  The Art of the Maya Scribe. Thames and Hudson, London.

Freidel, David, and Stanley Guenter. 2003. Bearers of War and Creation. Archaeology (On-Line Features):

Martin, Simon. 2008. Wives and Daughters on the Dallas Altar. Mesoweb:

Ponce, Jocelyne. 2014. La estructura 13R-10 de La Corona: Un area de actividad de la élite maya prehispánica durante el clásico tardio y terminal. In XXVI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueologicas en Guatemala 2013, tomo II, pp. 975-986. Asociación Tikal, Guatemala.

Robicsek, Francis and Donald M. Hales. 1981. The Maya Book of the Dead: The Ceramic Codex, The Corpus of Codex Style Ceramics from the Late Classic Period. University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson, London.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 14. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

_______________. 1990. Hieroglyphs on Maya Vessels. The Maya Vase Book, Volume 1. Kerr Associates, New York.

______________. 2014. Four Interesting Logograms. Paper presented at the 1st Annual Maya Dictionary Meeting, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Künste, Düsseldorf, Germany.

Tedlock, Dennis. 2010. 2000 Years of Mayan Literature. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Getting Stoned (in the Grolier Codex)

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

figure 3.jpg

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Dragons, Whales, and Wits’

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Karlštejn castle, in the Czech Republic, guards a curious relic: the skull of a Nile crocodile thought by its owner, Emperor Charles IV (1316–1378), to come from a dragon. Indeed, to Charles, this might have been the very monster slain by St. George (Pluskowski 2013:118–119). Charles was something of a mystic. In Karlštejn, he devised a “quasi-theatrical journey…interwoven with the progress of sacred time” (Crossley 2000:142). But he was not alone in seeing fantastic creatures behind this or that piece of bone or tissue from far away.

Think of fossils. They are like living animals and plants yet wholly unlike them, being of stone and, at times, strangely outsized. They lead readily to fabulous accounts, as in this one from Albrecht Durer: a “thigh bone alone measur[ing] five-and-a-half feet” must have belonged to a giant who once “ruled in Antwerp and performed great deeds; the city fathers wrote much about him in an old book” (Wood 2005:1148). The process of constructing “conjectural bestiaries” is more than an imaginative act (Houston 2010:75). Through tangible objects, to be treasured or gawked at, plainly to be seen, the most whimsical premise becomes real. A dragon skull testifies to a world of marvels, as does an enormous bone. And a belief in that world acquires an undeniable, material justification. What had started as a question—”what could this remnant belong to?—transforms into its own answer, a proof that a conjecture was right to begin with.


Perhaps the best example is the unicorn. An image from the Rochester Bestiary (c. AD 1250) shows the only way of killing this beast (Figure 1). Don your full covering of chain mail, invite the unicorn to cradle in the lap of a virgin, and then—quickly now!—kill it with repeated thrusts of a spear (Plusowski 2004:305). At least the creature died happy, to judge from its pleased expression. In the Middle Ages, the unicorn carried symbolic value by evoking the “invincibility and humility of Christ”; to paranoid rulers, its horn had a further benefit, in that it countered, or was believed to thwart, any poisons in drink (Plusowski 2004:305). By the later Medieval period, unicorn horns appeared in greater numbers. The Doges of Venice possessed two that had been looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, and a horn at Windsor formed part of the royal treasure sold by Oliver Cromwell after his victory in the English Civil Wars (Humphreys 1951:380). Others were made into objects for liturgical processions (Liverpool narwhal candlestick). In 1383, an ibex horn at the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham was inventoried as the talon of a griffin (Plusowski 2010:207, fig.. 9.6).

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

Figure 1.  Rochester Bestiary, 13th century AD, f.10v (British Library)  Royal MS 12 F XIII.


By Cromwell’s time, a less beguiling certainty replaced mythic explanation. These objects were simply the tusks taken from narwhal (Monodon monoceros), toothed whales to be found cruising around the waters of Greenland. (The tusk itself, an elongated left upper incisor, grows up to 200 mm long, an inspiration to any fabulist far from that island.) The transport of horn in modest quantities to Europe followed the settlement of Greenland by Icelandic Vikings in the late 10th century AD (Plusowski 2004:297, 299, fig. 2). Confusion did not disappear entirely. As late as 1694, Pierre Pomet, chief druggist to Louis XIV of France, lumped it with other large “fish” and could not resist illustrating a rather equine “Unicorn of the Sea” (Licorne de Mer) alongside a more realistic narwhal (Figure 2).

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 11.14.55 PM.png
Figure 2. Narwal and “Unicorn of the Sea” (Pomet 1694:78).

The Classic Maya may have had their own miraculous versions of dragon skulls and unicorn horns. The presence of shark teeth, including fossilized ones of the immense Carcharocles megalodon, is attested at an Olmec site like La Venta, but also, in Classic contexts, at Palenque, El Zotz, and elsewhere (see a valuable review in Newman 2016; also Borhegyi 1961; Cuevas García 2008:670; Martos López 2009:65; for fossils in Mexico and their earlier interpretation, Mayor 2013). It is likely that these were associated with creatures the artists may never have seen, some from presumed mythic or primordial settings.

Another example can be discerned. This is the canine of a feline, probably a jaguar, that had been drilled at about AD 500–550, its top shaped into the head of a deity (Franco 1968:21, lám. V; the dimensions are inferred from its published size, “[e]l dibujo es exactamente al tamaño natural”). A drawing and photographs of the object are reconfigured here so that the drawing is oriented properly—it is inverted in the monograph (Figure 3).

Figure 2.jpg
Figure 3. Drilled pendant, adult feline canine (jaguar?), “colección particular,” c. 9 cm high (Franco 1968:21, lám. V).

The iconographic attributes make two things clear. One is that this is the head of the serpent linked to sentient, almost volitional water, the witz’ snake that may well correspond to the later Chicchan of the Ch’orti’ Maya (Figure 4, Stuart 2007).

Figure 4. The tooth of the witz’ serpent (K1162, photograph by Justin Kerr, copyright Kerr Associates). 


Such creatures were impersonated by many lords and some ladies in the Classic period (for examples, although not identified as such, see Schele 1982:fig. 50). To judge from the Chicchan, the witz’ were beings tied to rain, springs and lakes, and, in their undulating, snake-like bodies, to the passage of water. More to the point, the pendant may have been regarded as the very tooth of that serpent or at least of one of them. Did the maker understand that it was a jaguar canine?  Such were uncommon but doubtless known, yet there was always the persuasive impact of imagination and a sheer wish to believe. Did its use as a pendant invoke the witz’ or show some dominion over it, even a heroic besting of the beast? The “serpent’s tooth” came from some unknown site, and these questions remain unanswerable. But the pendant does hint at wonders, powers, and fables that concern things of miraculous origin, as duly enhanced by humans.

Acknowledgements  Thanks go to David Stuart for conversations about this fascinating object.


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The Universe in a Maya Plate 1

by James Doyle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Stephen Houston, Brown University

Expressing metaphors for a constantly shifting reality is a human universal, especially during the mid-8th century AD. At that time, in the center of the Yucatan peninsula, royal courts were on the cusp of political and demographic upheaval. Yet, in a signal irony—and perhaps as a cause?—they managed to sponsor innovative architectural and artistic programs. Consider the vase painters in and around Calakmul, Campeche, at c. AD 750.

The sheer volume of codex-style vessels, produced within a very few generations, suggest that ateliers were scaling up production for the struggling royal court and assertive sub-royals in sites nearby. Lack of archaeological context and legible texts impedes deeper understanding of the circumstances under which such paintings were produced (but see Delvendahl 2008:125-128; García Barrios 2011). A suggestive comparison, though, could be made with the proliferation of lintels and panels in the Usumacinta region within the Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras kingdoms: that is, art was distributed in exchange for loyalty and tribute when such had become, perhaps, more precarious (Martin and Grube 2008:135-137, 153).

Only slightly more than 20 painters are identified by name in the Classic period, far fewer than the ca. 120 sculptors who signed works in stone (Houston 2016; Houston, Stuart, and Fash 2014; Stuart 1987, 1989). Recent studies have traced the oeuvres of individual vase painters in specific temporal contexts (see Just 2012). Without scribal signatures, however, researchers are left to the detailed study of the “hands” of Classic Maya artists. This is an evaluation that rests on habitual, “unconscious” details, as pioneered by Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, and others for Renaissance masters such as Raphael, or by John Beazley for Classical Greek painters (See Beazley 1911, 1946; Berenson 1901, 1903; Morelli 1900; Wollheim 1974). Such work could be tedious to an extreme, and highly subjective. Morelli himself, founder of such studies, admitted that it required “long practice” and that each eye might see different patterns.

Certain Maya painting styles nevertheless lend themselves to identifying artists’ hands. The limited number of variables and limited palette within the corpus of codex-style painting facilitate that search. This opportunity was recognized by Justin and Barbara Kerr in the early years of their valuable and innovative documentation of Maya ceramics (Kerr and Kerr 1988). The Kerrs proposed the existence of several codex-style masters on the basis of details revealed through close study of brush flourishes or the execution of hands, feet, and other minutiae. We were recently invited by Mary Miller to honor Justin Kerr at a special session in the 2017 College Art Association meeting and decided to revisit this important contribution.

The presentation coincided with the publication of an article celebrating codex-style vessels in the recent Metropolitan Museum Journal, Creation Narratives on Ancient Maya Codex-Style Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum, and a concurrent Maya codex-style installation at The Met. All depict the Classic Maya rain god, Chahk, in typical codex style. Red bands and black calligraphic line fill a cream or light beige background. Washes embellish figures, fluids, and the hieroglyphic texts that accompany them. In this genre, undulating shapes tend to dominate, along with a decided abhorrence of straight lines. Michael Coe called this “whiplash” calligraphy, endowed with lines that seem to curve and “snap” with vigorous energy (Coe 1973:91). New rollout photos, inspired by the Kerrs’ original work, include a hi-res image of the Metropolitan Vase and its visual narrative pertaining to the birth of a mythological infant jaguar deity. This vessel anchored one of the groups identified by the Kerrs, who identified a workshop controlled by a painter they dubbed the “Metropolitan Master.”

One codex-style masterwork not included in the Kerr’s original study was the unusually large tripod plate studied by Linda Schele and Mary Miller in their landmark exhibition, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Nicknamed the “Cosmic Plate” for its dense imagery, cosmogonic themes, and fineness of execution, it is a unique work, with few peers in terms of size, ambition, and care of painting (Figure 1, for a close competitor in quality, see, however, see Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII). In producing a new line drawing of the plate’s great Chahk representation from Justin Kerr’s photos, Doyle quickly realized that advances in knowledge allowed for a fresh study of this masterpiece.


Fig. 1  Tripod plate showing Chahk as the great progenitor, 7th–8th century AD. Guatemala or Mexico, Maya, Late Classic. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, Diam. approx. 16 1/2 in. (42 cm). Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

The monumental plate is an object made for display, likely at feasting occasions in the royal court (in fact, few known Maya plates are so large—one example, impressive in size yet smaller than the “Cosmic Plate,” is a 31 cm-diameter Hutzijan polychrome plate excavated in Structure C-10 at Piedras Negras, see Muñoz 2004:103). A plate like this one could have been a grand diplomatic gesture, a gift between Maya rulers. The codex style is clearly a hallmark of the royal courts and loyal local palaces around the great city of Calakmul, straddling the border between southern Campeche and northern Guatemala (see Hansen et al. 1991; Reents-Budet et al. 2010). In our view, two potential models might explain the circulation of codex-style vessels: (1) non-royal political leaders commissioned them; or, more likely, (2) the most exquisite and elaborate were bestowed by the rulers of Calakmul itself. Perhaps local lords received handsome presents in return for their loyalty, through low-cost rewards distributed by the center. After all, a painted pot reveals deep training, but its making demanded only negligible expense in materials, time, and fuel for firing. Recall the high value that scholars had long-assumed for certain Athenian ceramics. In a provocative argument, Michael Vickers and David Gill (1994) suggested that this was a latter-day projection, one inconsistent with an actual, ancient emphasis on vessels of precious metals.

On the Cosmic Plate, the outer walls of its sloping rim are boldly painted with watery motifs, visible from afar, that include swirls, registers of droplets, and waterlily vegetation (Figure 2). The delicate main scene on the upper surface, however, would only have been visible by those directly above the plate at close range. The potter and painter collaborated on a clever conceit. The three feet of the vessel imitate downpours, a vertical deluge of concentrated form—these occur routinely in the Yucatan peninsula. In this case, columns of rain appear to precipitate from the plate itself and the watery milieu on its exterior.


Fig. 2. Detail of the outside of the tripod plate and supports. Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

Traits on the Chahk plate—including the form of certain common motifs, the singular aspects of its composition, and the virtuoso brushwork over the large surface—distinguish it from almost all other Maya ceramic paintings. Some have argued that three vessels in the Princeton University Art Museum come from the same hand, executed by the painter ?-n Buluch? Laj, and painted around AD 755 (Robiscek and Hales 1983:249; see Just 2012). Indeed, the portrayal of a jaguar on the largest of those vessels invites close comparison with the howling jaguar growing from Chahk’s head. But the hypothesis that ?-n Buluch? Laj also painted the great Chahk plate raises a number of questions about painterly practice.

Maya vase painters appear to have experimented with different styles. The Princeton vases were likely commissioned by a Peten Itza king in north-central Guatemala. Hypothetically, the Cosmic Plate either came from there or from Calakmul, although still influenced by exemplary works to the south. The renowned “Altar vase,” clearly from the Ik’ kingdom near Peten Itza, proves that such pots traveled far and wide (Just 2012:142-149). Another source of inspiration might have been circulating books or paintings. Imperial China is known to have had such exchange, and scrolls gained uniformity, often over vast areas, by their energetic dispersion, study, and copying (see Miller 1998:216-218).

Whether the plate is the lone known work of a master or not, its unrecorded artist certainly fused the mythic and the historical in microcosmic form. The mythic frame of the narrative describes the context of the sprouting Chahk in deep time and in linked primordial locations. The fictive date of 13 Ok 8 Zotz must be significant to wider Maya myths: that Calendar Round appears in the Dresden Codex, in reference to the planet Venus, a point recognized by David Stuart (Miller and Schele 1986:310-312, pl. 122). Three Venus signs as well as the frontal and rear parts of the body of the celestial “starry Deer Crocodile” appear on either side of the upper scene, signifying the sky as the upper part of the composition (Martin 2015; Velásquez García 2006:Fig. 5). A celestial bird carries what appears to be the month name, 4 Ceh.

On the 13 Ok 8 Zotz date, an event “happened” (utiiy). This form of the verb has been suggested by David Stuart (personal communication, 1992) to refer to actions in remote time. The ancient subject seems to be k’uhul jinaj ? or “sacred milpa/planted-maize water,” perhaps a reference to the sprouting of maize, as part of a phrase consistent with the overall theme of emerging vegetation (Figure 3).


Fig. 3. Hieroglyphic text describing events in mythological time and the four god names.

The scribe went on to describe the mythological setting in triplet form: it “happened” (utiiy, this time in a more conventional, syllabic spelling) “at the black cenote, at the black water, at the five-flower house (?).” The agents at the event in deep time are probably described as the four gods of matawil (4 ma-ta-K’UH), which could be a reference to a watery paradise (Stuart and Stuart 2008: 211-215). The gods are named as a feline or jaguar (hi-HIX)—he appears here, roaring, head-back—we suspect (the text is eroded), the presence of two other gods in addition to the Chak-Xib-Chahk at the center (Stuart was the first to identify this version of Chahk—others are known in the Dresden Codex and at Itzan, among other places; the connection to “red,” Chak, may be purely coloristic or refer to a direction, East). The text accords with visual clues to that toponymy. The centipede’s jaws, in a reference to the black cenote, frame Chahk’s watery emergence from a heavy register marked with the same hieroglyph for black water. There might also be a specific seasonal aspect to the scene, found in the single glyph blocks that flank the jaguar. These are variants of Wind God and sun-related glyphs, similar to the two glyphs born by characters in the Lamb panel from “Laxtunich” (Schele 1990:2).

Chahk is the undisputed protagonist as he rises waist-deep from the “black water.” He takes the form of an active, dancing character, perhaps a releaser of vegetation, and is shown in other depictions poised to chop with his axe. He wears his characteristic Spondylus earspools and holds the lightning axe symbolic of K’awiil. The main image of the scene is the branching head and left arm of the rain deity, with many sprouting beings (Figure 4). These include the large serpent to the left, the jaguar mentioned above, and a large “jester god” in the upper right that is recognizable by its crossed-bands motif. Th text is eroded and its details uncertain, but some of these could correspond the four gods of matawil mentioned in the text, including Chahk himself. Moreover, to lower right, that god’s left hand sprouts a personified version of obsidian. The branching Chahk with the other gods of matawil cue, as Karl Taube has suggested to us, the fractal forms of eccentric flints or obsidians. The overall being is both “hard” and “soft” in its asserted texture, material, and surface.


Fig. 4. Drawing of a detail of the plate by James Doyle.

The hieroglyphic text contains a disjuncture. The jump separates mythical events and deity protagonists from a likely historical frame of reference and a human owner (Figure 5). The damaged day sign probably carries the coefficient 12, and the Pohp month may be prefaced by a variant of the number 6, identified long ago at Palenque by David Stuart. Though pinning down the date is speculative, style and proximity to major period endings suggests the following possibilities:             12 Etz’nab     6 Pohp             Feb. 26           AD 692               12 Ben            6 Pohp              Feb. 17           AD 731                 12 Ak’bal       6 Pohp              Feb. 10           AD 757                12 Lamat        6 Pohp              Feb. 7            AD 770

We find the latter two dates more likely, given the available evidence for the temporal distribution of codex-style ceramics, and the possible connection to the Ik’ painters who were active in the 750s-780s. The misalignment and asymmetry in the two sets of glyph blocks underscore the textual split between ancient time and contemporary events.


Fig. 5. Historical Text.

The action that follows the date is likely a variant of the verb for ceremonial “raising” of a jawte’, plate (not “death,” as posited by Schele). The execution of the dedication verb on the plate is coincidentally very similar to that on the vessel in the Princeton museum and another cup likely by the same painter from the Ik’ polity, the first dated to approximately AD 755 (  4 Hix 12 Kumk’u). The name and title that follow almost certainly name an actual historic figure (la-ch’a-TUUN-ni si-k’u-AJAW), though this name does not seem to be attested elsewhere in the corpus of Maya writing.

The plate with the mythic scene thus belonged to a living, historical owner who carried the ajaw title. Presumably, maize tamales filled the plate during important meals. By another, clever conceit, the plate would have contained actual maize products atop a scene in which growth is shown at first emergence. The reference to the mythological creation of maize and the depiction of this watery Olympus of quadripartite gods of matawil is indeed cosmic, but with a terrestrial focus. See, for example, the three partially preserved figures between the black water band and the potential representation of the “five-flower house” below (Figure 6).


Fig. 6. Detail of personified plants: (left) “root” figure, possibly manioc or sweet potato (note sign for “darkness,” a feature first discerned by Marc Zender); (center) dancing Maize God with elongated cranium and breath bead; (right) “tobacco” figure (note sign for “darkness” on body of figure, a possible reference to nocturnal conditions or even a plant disease such as black shank?).

Accompanying the leafy plants is another upside-down figure on the left projecting downward from the water register. The scribe depicted this figure’s headdress as something close to the wi syllable, identifiable as a pan-Lowland word for “raíz, root,” in languages such as Ch’ol, Chontal, and Ch’orti’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:126). This could refer to a type of indigenous root crop, such as sweet potato or manioc, the latter extensively documented as a staple in places like Joya de Cerén, El Salvador (Sheets et al. 2012). If so, this character may constitute a unique depiction of root crops in Maya art. Much like the vegetation around Pakal’s sarcophagus, these beings correspond to plants of economic import to the Maya, and to key elements of consumption.

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Fig. 7. Comparison of wi syllable from Chahk plate and Palenque’s Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.

The deeper meaning of the plate thus comes into crisp focus. The object would have existed in two time frames, offering both real food and mythic food stuffs. In deep time, lightning and rain came together under the auspices of Venus and stars, at a location in or near the black cenote/black water place, calling together a dream-team of four deities. Chahk, as the central figure from which the other gods are sprouting, wields his axe to strike and release primordial vegetation: root crops, maize, and tobacco, in the form of godly figures. Fast forwarding to the 8th century, one can imagine a recitation by someone seated next to the plate. At a sumptuous feast, he or she would read the image and text and recount distant (yet close!) mythological events. The owner perhaps entreated the very deities pictured within, in earnest hopes for bountiful crops and plentiful rains in a time of impending social upheaval.


This post is dedicated to Justin Kerr, who built a life with his wife Barbara devoted to the study and preservation of Maya artworks. Mary Miller kindly invited us to the CAA meeting, where we had fruitful conversations with her, Claudia Brittenham, Bryan Just, Megan O’Neil, and Justin himself. Simon Martin and David Stuart also provided useful and timely comment.


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