More on the Paddler Gods

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

Among the various gods we know from ancient Maya religion, the paired deities known as the Paddlers are among the most important and enigmatic. The two elderly-looking characters are probably best known as the canoe rowers depicted on several incised bones from Burial 116 at Tikal, and they nearly always operate in tandem (Figure 1). One has jaguar-like characteristics and resembles the so-called “Jaguar God of the Underworld” (JGU), whereas the other shows piscine features, as well as a diagnostic stingray-spine stuck through the septum of the nose. I refer to them as the Jaguar Paddler and the Spine Paddler, respectively.

Tikal canoe scene

Figure 1. Drawing on small incised bone from Burial 116 at Tikal, showing the Paddler gods on their mythic canoe. (From Trik 1963:fig.3a).

Paddlers variants

Figure 2. (a) Paddler names from Stela 8 at Dos Pilas (drawing by I. Graham), (b) on an unpublished stucco hieroglyph from Tonina (photo by D. Stuart, 1980)

Hieroglyphs for the two Paddlers were first recognized by Peter Mathews in his important analysis of Dos Pilas, Stela 8. He recognized their portrait glyphs (Figure 2a) embedded within a longer list of god names, perhaps a list of tutelary deities associated with the royal house (Mathews 2001[1977]:399). In the early 1980s I identified an alternate method of writing the Paddlers’ names in a pairing of ak’bal and k’in signs, always in that sequence, each encased in a distinctively-shaped cartouche (Stuart 1988:190) (Figure 2b). It was then that I introduced the term “Paddler Gods” as a convenient and neutral term of reference for the pair.  Little has been said or written about these two deities in the years since, and they still remain intriguing figures in Classic Maya myth and ritual performance.

From the Tikal bones we easily gather that the Paddlers were “underworld” figures of great importance, steering the Maize God and his animal companions — a parrot, monkey, iguana and some odd mammal (representing an ancient Maya faunal taxonomy?) — into the depths of the water. A simpler depiction of the same mythological event appears on a polychrome vase, K3033 in Justin Kerr’s database, where the canoe is clearly related to the Maize God’s dressing and “water-entering” (och-ha’) as part of the mythic cycle of his demise and resurrection.

TNA Mon 110

Figure 3. Tonina, Monument 110. Note the Paddlers’ names in block Q. (Drawing by I. Graham)

In ancient inscriptions we read nothing about the Paddlers in connection to the Maize God. Instead they seem to be especially important in Period Ending ceremonies. Monument 110 from Tonina is fairly typical of such references (Figure 3). The disc-altar was once placed before an upright statue of a ruler named K’inich ? K’ahk’ (Ruler 4), serving as a figurative receptacle for offerings on the Period Ending 5 Ahau 3 Mac (10 October, 721).  The circular inscription notes the dedication of the monument (block J), the king’s scattering rite (K), and the witnessing of the ceremony by two court officials (Mb-O).  The text closes with the verb yatij, perhaps “they bathe it” (P), followed by the names of the Paddlers (Q). Here their “bathing” might be best understood as a type of supernatural blessing or sanction.

Ixlu St 2

Figure 4. Ixlu, Stela 2, showing the Paddlers above a scattering scene. (Drawing by L. Schele).

The same idea seems to be depicted on a handful of late stelae from Tikal and environs, where the Paddlers, sometimes along other gods or ancestors, appear in clouds above scenes of kings casting incense or blood before a circular altar (Figure 4) (Stuart 1988). The connection between god and king could quite personal as well. On Stela 2 from Copan, celebrating the k’atun ending, Ruler 12 of Copan impersonates not only his distant predecessor on the throne, Tuun K’ab Hix (Ruler 4), but he also is said to embody the two Paddlers, describes as u mam k’uh, “his ancestral gods” (see Stuart 1988:212-214).

Quirigua St C Paddlers

Figure 5. Record of the Paddlers erecting a stone on, from Quirigua Stela C (drawing by D. Stuart).

The Paddlers’ deep involvement with Period Ending rites build on their documented roles as primordial actors in calendrical ritual.  On Quirigua Stela C, they  play a key role in the famous narrative of the foundational bak’tun-ending 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, when “thrice the stones were raised.” The first of these dedications was overseen by the Paddlers (Figure 5), establishing their prime importance in setting the mythological example that later kings would follow. It’s maybe relevant that the cyclical movement of time was symbolically encoded in the opposed night-day name of the two gods.

In this note I would like to highlight those handful of cases where we find a third figure mentioned along with the two Paddlers, creating some sort of expanded triadic set. This additional god is represented by another portrait glyph representing a young made deity with an elaborate floral headband and an IK’ sign as its ear spool (Figure 6).  He represents a figure has been discussed by Taube as a Classic counterpart of Paul Schellhas’ “God H” in the codices, and symbolically he seems to be associated with wind, music and the arts (Taube 1992, 2001). One wonders if he might be some vague Maya counterpart to the later Aztec deity Xochipilli, the “Flower Prince,” with similar associations. Just why this flowery wind-man accompanies the Paddlers remains a mystery, but he’s clearly a very important player in the godly sanction of Period Ending ceremonies.

Figure 6. The Paddler Triad.

As an aside, I should mention that this wind-head hieroglyph can operate as either the god’s name or as the animate form of the IK’ (“wind, breath”) logogram, day sign, or patron of the month Mac (Mak). As a name the reading must be different, as indicated by the example from Stela 12 of Piedras Negras where it appears with the suffix –na, indicating a completely different though unknown logographic value (see Figure 6, lower right). In addition, I think we should be careful not to call this character a Maya wind god, since a very different duck-billed character was explicitly called ik’ k’uh (“wind god”), no doubt an ancestor to Ehecatl, the wind deity of the Aztecs. The headband character shown here operates differently in Maya iconography, with strong wind or breath associations nonetheless, as Taube has shown.

With or without this curious wind figure, the Paddler gods actively oversaw and participated in royal world-renewal ceremonies at Period Endings. Evidently this role perpetuated their far older mythological role as ritual celebrants in primordial time.

References Cited

Mathews, Peter. 1977(2001).  Notes on the Inscriptions on the Back of Dos Pilas Stela 8. In The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing, ed. by S. Houston, D. Stuart and O. Chinchilla Mazariegos, pp. 394-415. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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

Taube, Karl. 1992. The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, 32.  Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

_________. 2001. The Breath of Life: The Symbolism of Wind in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. In The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland, ed. by V.M. Fields and V. Zamuro-Taylor, pp. 102-123. LACMA, Los Angeles.

Trik, Aubrey S. 1963. The Splendid Tomb of Temple I at Tikal, Guatemala. Expedition 6(1). The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

More Deathly Sport

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Some years ago, I posted a blog suggesting a distinct pattern in urban form among the ancient Maya. This was an alignment in which ballcourt alleys pointed towards royal interments (Houston 2014, Deathly Sport). Another example now comes to mind. A fine map by George Bey and William Ringle shows the location, at Ek’ Balam, Yucatan, of the ballcourt at the site. A reference to that feature may appear in the local texts, in Room 29sb, Mural B, yet the preceding, partly effaced sign, …bu, probably cues a stairway, ehb. Ballplay sometimes took place on such features.

Here is my photograph of the much-restored ballcourt (Figure 1), followed, in the next image, by the Bey/Ringle map (Figure 2).

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Figure 1. Ek’ Balam ballcourt, with alley pointing toward the “Acropolis” at the site (note thatching over tomb building, top-center; photograph by Stephen Houston).

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Figure 2. Map of epicentral Ek’ Balam, with arrow added for orientation and sight-line towards tomb (cartography by George Bey and William Ringle).

The skewed alignment, headed not towards the center of the Acropolis but to an area just west of its main axis, transports the gaze to the location of a spectacular tomb. That grave was found under Room 49 by Leticia Vargas de la Peña and Víctor R. Castillo Borges. To my knowledge, the tomb has not been published in full. But, as shown by Alfonso Lacadena (2004), it surely belonged to the principal lord of the site, U Kit Kan Lehk (the final word of his name is insecurely transliterated).

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Figure 3. Location of royal tomb in Acropolis (map by Vargas de la Peña y Víctor R. Castillo Borges).

There are as yet no detailed publications on the relative chronology of these features—did the ballcourt come before the tomb or after?  Nor do I have any precise readings from a Total Station, as that would have given (or refuted) a more certain alignment. But these buildings may well add to the growing evidence for links between ballplay and the illustrious dead. 


Houston, Stephen. 2014. Deathly Sport. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Deathly Sport.

Lacadena García-Gallo, Alfonso. 2004.The Glyphic Corpus from Ek’ Balam, Yucatán, México. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. Ek’ Balam texts

Maya Stelae and Multi-Media

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

Most Maya stelae are slabs of quarried limestone. Others come from the volcaniclastic tuff of Copan or the slate of western Belize and the sites linked to that region. Anyone looking at Stela 9 of Calakmul, a slender, easily fractured monument of slate, must wonder how it got there intact (Ruppert and Denison 1943:101–2; see also Healy et al. 1995).

But what survives of a stela may be just a fraction of its former self.

In a chilling note, suitable for Halloween, when it was posted, David Stuart drew attention to a few, rare images of Maya stelae on pots (Stuart 2014, Sacrifice Scene). Sacrifice is afoot, literally so in the form of deities or impersonators padding or dancing about (Figure 1). In one scene a pedestaled altar supports a gutted figure in unusual pose. The victim looks out at the viewer. The call for empathy, revulsion or some other, unfathomable emotion is direct, the “fourth wall” quite broken in this case. Viewing equates to participation. The other image takes this process a bit further or in a new direction. The victim is now prone rather than supine, if still on an altar. His detached head appears on top of the stela. Blades or bone awls scourged and pierced the body before its decapitation. As in the Bonampak murals, or other images of tortured war captives, he bleeds from wounds on the thigh and perhaps the stomach (Miller and Brittenham 2013:fig. 210; see also Houston 2008, Maya Bailiff).

Stela with feitshes above

Figure 1. Maya stelae and human sacrifices (K8351 [left] and K8719 [right], photographs by Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates). 

Other media draw our attention too. Consider the fetish-like arrangement of paper or cloth, some of it knotted or tied into bows, possibly entangled with extracted body parts. Are those entrails on top of the stela to the left? I suspect the victims were still alive for part of this agony. After all, in Europe, disembowelment and external spooling of intestines were the usual punishments for regicides. The aim was to stretch out, literally and figuratively, the horror of conscious dying (Jardine 2005; for Japanese seppuku, see Fuse 1980).

As archaeologists, we tend to overlook the perishable world. Our focus, of course, is on what lies at hand. Yet there are unusual circumstances where bits of wood or scraps of cloths survive. Or, as in these examples, certain images suggest that Maya stelae were not just blocks of stone. They could also display or incorporate perishables, things inherently ephemeral and needing periodic replacement or alternation. This may even explain why the term for Maya stelae, deciphered as lakamtuun by David Stuart, meant, among the range of possible readings, “banner-stone” (Stuart 2010, LAKAM Logogram; see also Lacadena García-Gallo 2008:36, citing Barrera Vásquez 1980:434). In such a descriptive, cloth combines with stone.

There are other well-known depictions of stelae with perishables. First is a graffito from Tikal, on the south wall of Str. 5D-43, that shows cross-hatching over its surface (Figure 2 [left]). To be sure, this may simply be a way of indicating darkness or red paint, a convention found in many times and places (e.g., Myrberg 2010) and often used to show something dark or black in Maya color-coding (Houston et al. 2009:33–35). The other, on a peccary skull excavated from Tomb I at Copan, is somewhat clearer (Figure 2 [right], see also Peccary scan). Tautly entwined ropes cross the front of the stela, leaving exposed the stone underneath. From this evidence, Stuart argued, on good grounds, that stelae or altars sometimes had such wrappings (Stuart 1996). Stone may have been visible, then covered, then uncovered again. Carvings were less about sustained legibility than intermittent exposure or, in a paradox, their “concealed presence,” an understanding that something was there but reserved from public gaze.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Graffiti recorded by Helen Trik (Kampen and Trik 1983:fig. 46b) and close-up, Peccary Skull, Peabody Number 92-49-20/C201 (photographer unknown).

Mayanists have taken this evidence to heart. The data are nothing new. Seldom mentioned, however, at least in recent memory, is a relevant carving from Ixkun, Guatemala (Figure 3). I first visited the site in 2015, accompanied by two former students, Nicholas Carter and Sarah Newman. There, on the immense Stela 1, I was astonished to see multiple holes drilled around the sides and top. “Immense” fits this stone to a T: the carving is 3.72 m high, exclusive of its buried stela-butt, and the carving wide. Sylvanus Morley noted “[a] series of holes pass through the two front edges of the shaft, four on each side, for fastening something to the front vertical edges of the monument” (Morley 1938:183). In a later visit, Ian Graham observed: “[o]n either side four cord holders have been drilled at intervals along the rear edge, passing through to the back” (Graham 1980:137). 

Ixkun stela holes_Page_1

Figure 3. Drill holes on Ixkun Stela 1 (photograph by Nicholas Carter). 

What to make of this? First, there is the obvious, that perishables were attached to Stela 1 on an intermittent basis. A one-off ceremony, an unveiling only, would not account for such carefully drilled holes. But were there only cords, as on the Peccary Skull, or full coverings to conceal the carving underneath? Attaching skulls, body parts, and sundry fetishes is a more distant possibility. The position of the holes signals a wish for even coverage of the surface by some wrapping. The location of Stela 1 across from an E-Group, a building oriented towards solar, horizon events, hints at when the stela was exposed, i.e., calendrically or by auspicious appearances of the sun. Fire-drilling and incensing also highlight parts of its text and image. Both captives take, in fact, the ch’ajoom, “incenser” epithet in the very first glyph block of their names. A gendered take on this composite, multi-media production is worth mentioning too. By all available clues, carvings of this sort were made by men. A covering of cloth probably involved the work of women.

Ixkun Stela 1 may be an anomaly. If such holes exist on other stelae, I do not know of them. But the drill holes suggest the periodic covering or lashing and unwrapping of dynastic monuments, especially for ones the size and width of the Ixkun stela. Carvings of stone were only part of these composite productions.


Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex: Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida.

Fuse, Toyomas. 1980. Suicide and Culture in Japan: A Study of Seppuku as an Institutionalized Form of Suicide. Social Psychiatry 15:57–63. Seppuku

Graham, Ian. 1980. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 3: Ixkun, Ucanal, Ixtutz, Naranjo. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Healy, Paul F., Jaime J. Awe, Gyles Iannone, and Cassandra R. Bill. 1995. Pacbitun (Belize) and Ancient Maya Use of Slate. Antiquity 69:337-348.

Houston, Stephen. A Classic Maya Bailiff? Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Maya Bailiff.

Houston, Stephen, Claudia Brittenham, Cassandra Mesick, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Christina Warinner. 2009. Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Jardine, Lisa. 2005. The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun. HarperCollins, New York.

Lacadena García-Gallo, Alfonso. 2008. El titulo Lakam: Evidencia epigráfica sobre la organización tributaria y militar interna de los reinos mayas del clásico. Mayab no. 20, pp. 23-43.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Morley, Sylvanus G. 1938. The Inscriptions of Peten, Volume II. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 437. Washington, D.C.  

Myrberg, Nanouschka. 2010. The Colour of Money: Crusaders and coins in the Thirteenth-century Baltic Sea. In Making Sense of Things: Archaeologies of Sensory Perception, edited by Fredrik Fahlander and Anna Kjellström, pp. 83–102. Stockholm Studies in Archaeology 53. Department of Archaeological and Classical history, Stockholm University, Stockholm

Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 543. Washington, D.C.  

Stuart, David. 1996. Kings of Stone: A Consideration of Stelae in Ancient Maya Ritual and Representation. RES, Anthropology and Aesthetics 29/30:148–171. Kings of Stone

—2014. Notes on a Sacrifice Scene. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Sacrifice Scene.

Trik, Helen, and Michael E. Kampen. 1983. Tikal Report No. 31: The Graffiti of Tikal. University Museum Monograph 57. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


Classic Maya Marimbas?

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

The fun of comparison is that it turns the familiar into the unfamiliar. It forces us to re-consider what we think we understand. So it is for me. A recent trip to Cambodia led, by luck, to the storeroom of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The Museum is, for those who have not been there, a colonial “take” on traditional Khmer architecture by its designer, the extraordinary George Groslier. A tragic figure, tortured to death by Japanese troops, Groslier did much for the country where he was born, doing pioneering research in all aspects of Khmer civilization. As if that were not enough,  he founded the Royal University of Fine Arts. Among his many interests, Groslier was fascinated by classical Khmer dance and music. In fact, the University was founded in part to preserve that tradition. The museum still holds many of his black-and-white photographs, documenting, if I remember correctly, close to 2500 distinct poses of dance (photographs by Groslier)

Our kind host, Bertrand Porte, local representative of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), spoke about the ordeals of Cambodian sculpture, showing us pieces that could be repatriated and reconstituted after their theft from the country. Then, to my surprise, he pulled a cloth away from a rather bulky object. Underneath lay a set of large “lithophones,” stones which, when struck, clang and resonate (Figure 1). Their varying size and how they were struck affect pitch and sonority, much like gamelan percussion in other parts of southeast Asia.

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Figure 1. Lithophones in National Museum, Phnom Penh (photograph by Stephen Houston). 

Such lithophones have been known for some time, if largely from Vietnam. The most influential study remains that of George Condominas, a figure renowned for his ethnology of the M’Nông people of Vietnam and his early use of terms like “ethnocide.” Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen would probably not know it, but his recording of M’Nông music enlivens the final scene of mayhem and butchery in Apocalypse Now (soundtrack). A set of such lithophones was found in orderly pattern, c. 1947, at the site of Ndut Lien Krak, about 350 km due east from Phnom Penh (Condominas 1952: fig. 42). The material is a metamorphic schist, and the dating somewhat unclear. Condominas, an associate of André Leroi-Gouhran, wanted them to be old indeed, many millennia in the past. The intervals of this set were worked out a bit earlier by André Schaeffner (1951: 16–17; see also Trần Văn Khê 1982: 233). Subsequent finds, the only ones in secure context, seem to narrow the date to about 500 to 1000 BC and perhaps some centuries before (Trần Văn Khê 1982: 226). All share certain features. The blades (lames) are oblong, mostly rectangular, with rounded ends (Trần Văn Khê 1982: 226). Only a few sets have been found. One scholar goes so far as to wonder if they were truly played in a group, like a xylophone, or struck individually. But they were certainly found clumped together, including a fortuitous discovery brought to light during bulldozing at the outset of the Vietnam war. In his superb book on Angkorian civilization, Michael Coe specifies a more precise date of c. 1240 BC, from a better-studied context at the Groslier site near Memot, on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia (Coe 2003: 52). He also mentions that “a few are still in use by aboriginal Mon-Khmers in the highlands in ceremonies that include rainmaking or buffalo sacrifice” (ibid: 52, citing unpublished work by Pham Duc Manh; see also Albrecht et al. 2001: 41, 42, pl. II). A few are shown here from Ndut Lien Krak (Figure 2), followed by one of the stones in various profiles (Figure 3). Note the lateral knapping and impressive size.

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Figure 2. Blades from Ndut Lien Krak (from Condominas 1952:pl. XLII).

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Figure 3. Stone II  from Ndut Lien Krak (from Condominas 1952:fig. 56).

Today, it appears that the Vietnamese delight in this (reinvented?) legacy, devising lithophones for more ambitious performances. Take a moment to listen:


Since that discovery, lithophones have been attested in Africa, including several in fixed position, massive boulders to be struck with hands or mallets (Fagg 1956:pl. b). Smaller, portable ones occur throughout the Sahara (Gonthier 2005). Particularly refined examples come from dynastic China, which have explicit notations on them about notes and where to strike (Bagley 2004; von Falkenhausen 1994). A persuasive and well-researched review of evidence from New England finds rounded lithophones that were formerly interpreted as “whetstones” or food-processing equipment (Caldwell 2013:520). The Cherokee, too, were said to have used “stone turtles” as drums (James Mooney, cited by Caldwell 2013:522.

A year or two ago, Karl Taube speculated to me that the Maya might have had lithophones. I vaguely recall James Brady making the same point years ago, but in that instance about stone features in caves.

I agree. We may well have been overlooking them, especially near the great chert deposits of northern Belize. An array of recent finds reveals “macroliths” (large knapped stones) that look eerily like those in the National Museum of Phnom Penh and those from Vietnam. These include blades from Hats Kaab, Belize (Brouwer Burg et al. 2016:fig. 9).

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Figure 4. Hats Kaab macroblade (Brouwer Burg et al. 2016:fig. 9).

Jaime Awe and his colleagues have been no less assiduous in reporting on massive blades from elsewhere in Belize (Stemp et al. 2014:figs. 2, 3), including an imposing example from El Chiquero in the Upper Macal River Valley (Figures 5–6; Stemp et al. 2015:fig. 1; see also a rich tomb at Tamarindito, in which a ruler, ready for music-making, clasps a macroblade to his chest; Valdés 1997:fig. 9). Some may occur in caves, also studied by Awe, as at Actun Tunichil Muknal (Awe et al. 2005:figs. 9.5–9.7). Such tight spaces would have obvious properties as echo-chambers.

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Figure 5. Comparison of macroblades: a, El Chiquero, b, Lamanai (probably a different category of object), c, Hats Kaab, and d, Santa Rita Corozal (Stemp et al. 2014:fig. 3). 

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Figure 6. Unprovenanced example (Stemp et al. 2015:fig. 1).

I now suspect that not all of these were knapped. In their peerless excavations at Aguateca, Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan uncovered, in royal contexts, rectangular objects that might well have been struck by mallets. Inomata observes that they were “relatively smooth, but not completely flat, surfaces and do not seem to have been used for grinding” (Inomata 2014: 76, fig. 5.42, a, b). If archaeologist look again, they may well detect similar objects, some of which might have been gongs. I have long thought, for example, that Maya belt celts should be evaluated for their phonic properties. Clearly, they were meant to move and hit one another.



There is long-standing debate about whether the celebrated Maya marimba came from Africa. Tikal Burial 10, thought by some to belong to Yax Nuun Ahiin, an important Early Classic ruler, has a set of three turtle carapaces in a row, mounted between two sticks (Coe 1990: fig. 160). For others, however, the matter is settled. There is the word itself, marimba, which is of evident Bantu origin, and the use of gourd or wooden resonators, also African in inspiration (origin). But this is not the same as insisting that the Maya had no such instruments, no tradition of sonorous music from stone.

Postscript:  My good colleague, Andrew Scherer, sends me to the following:  Lithophones are, it seems, everywhere, and, in stray stones, everywhere to be found.


Karl Taube got me thinking about this over a year go, and Zachary Hruby is now undertaking amusing experiments that point to even more varied instrumentation. Mike Coe drew my attention to the dating mentioned in his fine book on Khmer civilization. My trip to Cambodia was facilitated by good friends John Bodel and Michèle Brunet through their Visible Words initiative.


Albrecht, Gerd, Miriam Noel Haidle, Chhor Sivleng, Heang Leang Hong, Heng Sophady, Heng Than, Mao Someaphyvath, Sirik Kada, Som Sophal, Thuy Chanthourn, and Vin Laychour. 2001. Circular Earthwork Krek 52/62: Recent Research on the Prehistory of Cambodia. Asian Perspectives 39: 20–46.

Awe, Jaime J., Cameron Griffith, and Sherry Gibbs. 2005. Cave Stelae and Megalithic Monuments in Western Belize. In In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use, edited by James E. Brady and Keith M. Prufer, pp. 223–248. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Bagley, Robert W. 2004. The Prehistory of Chinese Music Theory. Proceedings of the British Academy 131: 41–90.

Brouwer Burg, Mareike, Astrid Runggaldier, and Eleanor Harrison Buck. 2016. The Afterlife of Earthen Core Buildings: A Taphonomic Study of Threatened and Efface Architecture in Central Belize. Journal of Field Archaeology 41(1): 17–36.

Coe, Michael D. 2003. Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. Thames and Hudson, London.

Coe, William R. 1990. Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrace and North Acropolis of Tikal. Tikal Report No. 14, Vol. IV. University Monograph 61. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Condominas, George. 1952. Le lithophone préhistorique de Ndut Lieng Krak. Bulletin d’École Française d’Extrême-Orient 45(2): 359–392.

Fagg, Bernard E. B. 1956. The Discovery of Multiple Rock Gongs in Nigeria. Man 56: 17–18.

Gonthier, Erik.2005. Des lithophones Sahariens au Musée de l’Homme. Archéologia 418: 10–11.

Inomata, Takeshi. 2014. Grinding Stones and Related Artifacts. In Life and Politics at the Royal Court of Aguateca: Artifacts, Analytical Data, and Synthesis, edited by Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, 54–83. Monographs of the Aguateca Archaeological Project, First Phase, Volume 3. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Schaeffner, André. 1951. Une importante découverte archéologique: le lithophone de Ndut Lieng Krak. Revue de Musicologie 33: 1–19.

Stemp, W. James, Jaime J. Awe, and Christophe Helmke. 2014. The Macrolith of El Chiquero, Belize. Mexicon 36(5): 145–150.

Stemp, W. James, Jaime J. Awe, and Christophe Helmke. 2014. A New Maya Macrolith Located. Mexicon 37(4): 83–84.

Trần Văn Khê. 1982. Du lithophone de Ndut Lieng Krak au Lithophone de Bac Ai. Revue de Musicologie 68: 221–236.

Valdés, Juan Antonio. 1997. Tamarindito: Archaeology and Regional Politics in the Petexbatun Region. Ancient Mesoamerica 8:321–335.

Von Falkenhausen, Lothar. 1994. Suspended Music: Chime Bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China. University of California Press, Berkeley.

The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Note: The following post, a bit off-topic from the world of Maya hieroglyphs, is excerpted from a larger work now in preparation, provisionally titled “The Face of the Cosmos: Further Interpretations of the Aztec Calendar Stone”

Figure 1. Photograph of the sculpted face of the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.

Figure 1. Photograph of the sculpted face of the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.

After over two centuries of intensive scholarly attention and commentary there would seem little left to say about the symbolism of the so-called Calendar Stone or Piedra del Sol of Tenochtitlan, the single most iconic image of Aztec culture and ancient Mexico (Figure 1). Much has been written and debated about its imagery and iconography, yet a few basic questions regarding its intended meaning continue to be the subject of discussion and even fervent disagreement. If nothing else its varied interpretations reveal that the full significance of this quintessential Mesoamerican object, like much of Aztec and Maya iconography, still remains beyond our reach. Or, as Villela, Robb and Miller (2010:4) point out, “for all that has been written on the Calendar Stone, we can be sure that it has not yet full revealed its secrets.”

The truth of this statement comes across as soon as one delves into the long-running debate over the identity of the face at the very center of the design (Figure 2). It seems at once integral to the larger design of the solar disc as well as to the Olin day sign that forms the Nahui Olin (“Four Movement”) name of the current sun or era.  Early in the twentieth century, Eduard Seler and Hermann Beyer were adamant that the visage at the center of the disc was that of Tonatiuh, or “an image of the sun, no more and no less,” as Seler (1904a:797) once put it. This became the standard interpretation reinforced by numerous publications over the ensuing decades. However, Navarrete and Heyden (1974) proposed that the face was rather that of the animate earth, Tlalteuctli. Around the same time Townsend (1979) made a similar interpretation in his important study of Aztec imperial art. And in a somewhat related vein Klein (1976) rejected the traditional Tonatiuh interpretation in favor of seeing it as the face of the night sun, Yohualteuctli. In this essay I would like to add some additional thoughts on this key question, based on epigraphic clues in the surrounding design, suggesting that it may also have a firm historical identity as a deified portrait of the Mexica ruler Moteuczoma II.

Calendar Stone center photo

Figure 2. The central Nahui Olin glyph of the Calendar Stone.

Figure 3. S simpler example of the hieroglyph for Nahui Olin (Four Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the standard Olin element.

Figure 3. A standard presentation of the hieroglyph for Nahui Olin (Four Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Olin element. From the Codex Borbonicus.

The face itself is clearly embedded within the hieroglyphic forms around it. As Klein noted (1976:9), the face’s location in the center of the Olin glyph points to it being a graphic elaboration on the central eye motif that appears in nearly all other (simpler) examples of the Olin sign (Figure 3). This surely plays off of the full range of meanings of the Nahuatl noun ixtli, meaning “face, eye, surface” (Kartunen 1983:121). This is an important detail to consider, for it suggests that the central face, as a more visually developed ixtli, is more integral to the Olin sign than to the solar disc. In depicting a face at the center, the Nahuatl-speaking artist(s) thus chose to develop the Olin’s design in a way that was linguistically and conceptually logical. Interestingly, ixtli can have a more abstract notion of “identity” – the diagnostic “face” of a person or thing.  The last of these definitions of ixtli is of special note given the many varied interpretations of the central visage proposed over the last several decades. Here we see how language serves as an important conceptual baseline for interpreting the Calendar Stone’s composition and hieroglyphic design – something that seems underappreciated in some of what has been written on the monument and Aztec art in general.

Before the 1970s nearly all scholars followerd Seler and Beyer in seeing the central face as a straightforward portrait of Tonatiuh, the sun god. Differing interpretations have largely hinged on two features of the central visage — the knife-tongue of that emerges from the grimacing mouth and the clawed appendages that flank the face, each grasping a human heart.  According to Navarrete and Heyden (1974) and Townsend (1979) these were clear indications that the face is that of Tlalteuctli, the earth lord. As Navarrete and Heyden concluded:

…nos parece que el rostro esculpido en medio del Calendario Azteca or Piedra del Sol, no es de Tonatiuh sino de Tlaltecuhtli, que irrumpe hacia arriba mirando al cielo, de acuerdo con la verdadera posición del monumento, esculpido y dedicado al Quinto Sol, el Sol de movimiento de Tierra, Nahui Ollin, o 4 Movimiento (Navarrete and Heyden 1976:374).

Townsend furthermore noted, “the idea that the central mask of the Sun Stone represents the face of the earth, and not the face of Tonatiuh, ‘the sun,’ is consistent with the enclosing glyph ollin” (Townsend 1979:69). This is because of the common translation of olin as “earthquake” (its meaning is actually a bit more general, hence my preference for “movement” or “quake”), and perhaps also that the meaning of the corresponding seventeenth day in other Mesoamerican cultures includes “earth” (for example, the Maya day Caban < kab, “earth”). In his view the central visage represented “both the sacred earth and the territory of the Mexica nation” (Townsend 1979:69).  Such interpretations in favor of Tlalteuctli, the animate earth, at the center of the Calendar Stone seem compelling for two reasons: the face’s formal qualities as well as the stone’s original orientation as a flat, upward-facing surface. Spatially this all seems to make considerable sense.

The Tlalteuctli interpretation failed to win over all specialists in Aztec iconography, however. In a nuanced and influential study, Cecilia Klein (1976) also called into question the traditional Tonatiuh identification but proposed that the central face is neither a direct representation of the sun nor of the earth.  Rather she interpreted it as an image of Yohualteuctli, the “Night Lord,” who Seler had specifically identified as the nocturnal sun within the Underworld.  As Klein noted, “since Yohualtecuhtli was a god of the earth, darkness, death and the south a center of the world, his appearance in a context of the world at the center of the earth in the middle of the night is far more logical than would be that of Tonatiuh” (Klein 1976:10). Klein suggested that a specific aspect of a solar being is at the center of the Calendar Stone, just not its more obvious aspect as the warming Tonatiuh who rises in the eastern sky.

Nicholson (1993:14) offered a strong rejoinder to all of the many alternate interpretations that emerged in the 1970s, preferring to adhere to Seler and Beyer’s original and more direct interpretation: “Despite all of the recent efforts on the part of many serious students to refute or significantly modify the traditional view that this image represents Tonatiuh, the diurnal solar diety, I believe the best evidence still supports this identification.”  Nicholson noted that the knife-tongue of the central face was not necessarily a strong diagnostic feature of Tlateuctli, appearing with some frequency on images of other other deities in Aztec iconography. Nicholson was not even sure of the knife-tongue’s “debatable” significance.

To complicate the debate further, Felipe Solís more recently noted that the central face of the headdress of this Calendar Stone’s might be best interpreted as Xiuhteuctli, the “Turquoise Lord,” considered the god of “the center of the universe, whose image has hybrid characteristics of the earth and underworld” (Solís Olquín 2000:36). He based this assertion on a consideration of the headband, seeing its central jewel as a variant of the xiuhtototl bird, considered a diagnostic feature of that deity (see also Matos Moctezuma 2004:63).

Although such arguments reflect significant disagreement regarding the identity of the central face, they also could reveal the inherent ambiguity in identifying some Aztec deities as singular, discrete entities. The rigid either-or dichotomies of those earlier studies go against the more fluid senses of identity that Aztec artisans and theologians ascribed to such religious imagery.  Nicholson was surely correct in pointing out that the animate knife-tongue and clawed hands clutching hearts pertain to different supernatural beings, but I would argue that their meaning is fairly clear: rather than being diagnostic features, they characterize those powerful deities that pierce, cut, take and consume the hearts from human sacrifice. Knives used in sacrifice were, perhaps, metaphorical “tongues” of the sun and of the earth. Both the earth and the sun in their varied aspects are equally viable candidates in this respect. Moreover, I think it also very relevant that one of the hieroglyphs prominently featured in relationship to the central image of the Calendar Stone is 1 Flint (Ce Tecpatl), equally translatable as “1 Knife” (see Figure 4, below). This day-sign shows the same attached eyes and fangs replicated the animated knife-tongue of the central face. As we will see, this hieroglyph carries specific mythological meaning as a calendar name for yet another important Mexica deity.

Decades after the related studies by Klein, Navarrete, Heyden and Townsend, the identify of the central face of the Calendar Stone’s Olin glyph will no doubt continue to be debated. Again, I suspect that a lack of any firm consensus reflects the deliberate intention of the stone’s original designers to present a conflation of forms and spatial ideas.  The face shows a combination of features that at once suggest Tonatiuh as well as the sun’s reflection on or within earth. In other words, a number of merged identifies may play into the overall significance of the central face. Surely the original orientation of the Calendar Stone as an upward-facing monument reflects its earth-bound nature, but it was also a reflection of the sun at zenith  (Taube 2000). And as the face of the Olin sign it presents the animate visage of both terrestrial and celestial “movement.”

There is a good deal more to say about the identity of the central face. What previous writers have neglected to point out is that the designers of the Calendar Stone may have been quite explicit in marking its identification by means of hieroglyphic labels and elements. As I elaborate in the following section, certain hieroglyphic names and designation that are embedded in the design of the Calendar Stone gravitate to the central olin sign and seem to make direct reference to it, serving as labels of identity that have until now gone unrecognized or misunderstood.

Featured within the interior of the design, adjacent to the Olin glyph, are four smaller hieroglyphs grouped into two pairs. Like the four “era” glyphs infixed within the arms of the olin, these are oriented to face one another along the central vertical axis of the composition. At the base of the circle are two date glyphs, 1 Rain and 7 Monkey, the significances of which remain uncertain. Umberger (1988) pointed out that 1 Rain was the day, according to Sahagún, when sacrifices were made to rejuvenate the strength of the king. She notes (ibid.) that “Motecuhzoma, like the sun, apparently needed sacrifices to renew him.” Of the the upper pair of glyphs, the left-most hieroglyph shows a royal xuihuitzolli headband with falling hair and various adornments, opposite a calendrical reference to 1 Flint (Figure 4, in blue). The placement of these hieroglyphs above and in in direct association to the central Olin hieroglyph suggests to my mind that these may have direct bearing on the long-standing question of the identity of the central face.

Calendar Stone, central circle

Figure 4. The two principal hieroglyphs (in blue) adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. To the left is the name of Moteuczoma II, to the right is 1 Flint, the likely calendar name of Huitzilopochtli (Drawing by E. Umberger).

The headdress or headband glyph was seen by Seler and Beyer as a symbolic reference to the spirits of deceased warriors and, by extension, to the eastern sky (Seler 1904). However, Umberger (1981:205, 1988), following an earlier suggestion by Peñafiel (1890), was surely correct to see this as a particularly elaborate version of the name hieroglyph of Moteuczoma II, of which there are many examples on other monuments (Umberger 1981, 1988) (Figure 5). Her groundbreaking insight provided a key historical context for the monument , dating it to between 1503 and 1519, an attribution that is now widely accepted.

Moteuczoma's names

Figure 5. Various examples of Moteuczoma’s name glyph, (g) being from the Calendar Stone. From Hajovsky 2015:Fig. 1.1. (Drawings by P.T. Hajovsky).


The adjacent 1 Flint glyph, opposite the personal name of the ruler, has been variously interpreted. It was the name of a key year in the migration history of the Mexica, marking the departure date from Aztlan and also the year in which the Mexica defeated the Tepenecs early in the reign of Itzcoatl.  However, it is perhaps significant that the 1 Flint glyph here lacks the square xihuitl cartouche that one customarily finds with year records. Perhaps, then, it is not to be taken as an explicit year reference, but as something more oblique and metaphorical. Indeed, in another important insight Umberger (1988) suggested that it should more correctly be seen as the calendrical name of Huitzilopochtli, the patron deity of Tenochtitlan, an embodiment of the sun, and in certain respects Moteuczoma’s supernatural counterpart. This interpretation seems intrinsically attractive given 1 Flint’s visual juxtaposition with Moteuczoma II’s name glyph, as if these were two names associated with and reflective of one another. And in addition to being a probable calendar reference to Huitzilpochtli, 1 Flint may symbolically evoke the theme of heart sacrifice. Here I am reminded of the evident symbolism of the day 1 Etznab (equivalent to 1 Flint) among the Classic Maya. In the mythological text of Temple XIX at Palenque, 1 Etznab is the day of the axe sacrifice of the great alligator(s) by the local dynastic patron god GI (see Stuart 2005:68-75).

Those who accept the presence of Moteuczoma II’s name on the Calendar Stone generally consider his hieroglyph as designating the tlahtoani (ruler) who commissioned the sculpture in the early sixteenth century, not as something more functional or integral within the larger design of the monument. However, it seems reasonable to suppose that the careful and intentional positioning of both the ruler’s name and the 1 Flint glyph (also a name) within the inner circle holds important meaning in the Calendar Stone’s overall composition and meaning, and deserves further consideration.  Simply put, both glyphs are placed directly above the face and its surrounding Nahui Olin glyph, within the circular frame, and thus seem integral to the central design.  This interior placement of the glyphs is highly significant, suggesting that they serve as labels or names. That is to say, they serve to identify the deity represented at the center of the stone as both historical and mythical aspects of the sun. After all, several examples of the Moteuczoma II name glyph accompany portraits of the ruler, such as on the Hackmack Box, the Chapultepec Cliff Sculpture, and the Teocalli of Sacred Warfare (see Figure 5, e and f). In this new interpretation the central face of the Calendar Stone is explicitly labelled as Moteuczoma II as well as an embodiment of 1 Flint, the birth date of Huitzilopochtli. Here we should recall that the 1 Flint name glyph visually echoes an obvious feature of the central face, its flint-knife tongue. The xiuhuitzolli diadem that adorns the name glyph of Moteuczoma likewise bears an animated “flint face,” perhaps visually linking it as well to the central face of the monument.

If we interpret these two related name glyphs as labels for the accompanying image, we naturally must wonder how they pertain to the long debate about the identity of the central face as either the visage of the sun or of the earth. I doubt the issue is so binary and oppositional, as explained above, and prefer to see an intention to convey multiple identifies for the central face. But the key point here is that the monument provides its own explicit indication of two identities: one historical, the emperor Moteuczoma II, and one mythological, the solar aspect of Huitzilopochtli. The face is directly labeled by these hieroglyphs as a portrait of the defied ruler who embodies and exemplifies the Mexica patron god.

As Stephanie Strauss has pointed out to me (personal communication, 2016), one intriguing detail of the inner circle could be taken as indirect support for such a historical identification. If we consider the face to be a deified portrait of the tlahtoani, it is possible see the large pointed form above the head, a feature of the Olin glyph — as a playful visual reference to the ruler’s xuihuitzolli diadem.  Indeed the shape is identical to the diadems when they are seen in frontal view (Figure 6).  And as we can see in Figure 5 above, the very same diadem (in profile view) and the strands of hair visible on other side of the face are the two consistent elements of the king’s name glyphs. In those examples the diadem stands for the word teuc(tli), “lord,” a core term embedded within the name Moteuczoma.

xiuhuitzolli diadem

Figure 6. Comparison of the headband of the Calendar Stone’s central face to the royal xiuhuitzolli diadem as depicted in the Codex Borboniicus.

It seems appropriate then that the central image of the Calendar Stone would be at once cosmological and personalized, linking the cosmic forces of the sun to the persona of the living ruler.  The solar identification of the tlahtoani was elegantly conveyed by the oration of Nezahualpilli, the king of Texcoco, at the accession ceremony of Moteuczoma II, as described in Duran’s Historia:

O most powerful of all the kings on earth! The clouds have been dispelled and the darkness in which we lived has fled. The sun has appeared and the light of the day shines upon us after the darkness that had been brought by the death of your uncle the king. The torch that illuminates this city has again been lighted and today a mirror has been placed before us, into which we are to look (Durán 1994:391)

Here the poetic parallelism is made between the inauguration of the king, the rise of the bright sun, and to the symbolism of New Fire ceremony.  The ruler is the diurnal sun as well as a mirror of the community. All of these metaphors are among the many visual messages that are encoded visually in the design of the Calendar Stone.

To refine these concepts further, it is important to note that the person of the tlahtoani was viewed at times as the embodiment and personification of Huitzilopochtli, himself a specific aspect of the sun. In fact this equation is a basic tenet of ancient Mexica ideology. The core myth of Huitzilopochtli’s birth was a metaphor of solar birth and creation, famously replicated through spatial performance at his shrine in the huey teocalli in the main precinct of Tenochtitlan.  His main weapon, as described in Sahagún and elsewhere, was the xiuhcoatl serpent representing the shooting stars or the sun’s piercing rays, and of course these are the two dominant images at the edge of the Calendar Stone. As Umberger (1987:425) noted, “the ruler, Huitzilopochtli and the sun are closely related in Mexico thought: the ruler is the human imitator of the sun god, and the fortunes of both are compared to that of the sun.” We see this fundamental unity of ruler and patron god depicted in a very overt manner on the Stone of Tizoc, where the one labelled image of that ruler shows him as a conqueror wearing the regal hummingbird headdress of the Mexica patron deity (Hajovsky 2015:104) (Figure 7). I see a similar fusion of identities encoded by the hieroglyphic labels on the Calendar Stone, referring to the deified central face that visually presents itself as a more “generic” cosmic force and actor as the sun, the earth, or as some fusion of the two.  It is the hieroglyphs that provide the specific ideological message.

Tizic Huitzilopochtli

Figure 7. The ruler Tizoc (left) in the guise of Huitzilopochtli. From the Stone of Tizoc. (Photograph by D. Stuart).

We know that elsewhere in Mesoamerica rulers were frequently presented as embodiments of the sun and of calendrical cycles, and in this light the Calendar Stone seems little different. Among the Classic Maya are several images of historical rulers as the hieroglyphs for Ahau, becoming the personified essence of of period endings in the Long Count calendar. On La Palma, Stela 5, for example, the local king of the Lakamtuun royal line is portrayed within a hieroglyph pronounced ajaw, “king,” in the writing of the time period 7 Ahau (Figure 8). In a similar way Maya kings were often shown on ritual occasions and upon their accessions as embodiments of katuns and of other units of time (see Stuart 1996).  I wonder if similar ideas existed among the Mexica, and if the Calendar Stone similarly equates a specific ruler not only with  the sun and with celestial power, but also with a particular calendrical and temporal identity, Nahui Olin. The notion that time itself could be embodied and personified through a living king or queen seems to have been prelevant in Mesoamerican ideology and theology.

7 Ahau ruler

Figure 8. A Maya ruler as the embodiment of the time period 7 Ahau. Detail from El Palma Stela 5. (Preliminary drawing by D. Stuart).

In sum, my tentative identification of the Calendar Stone’s central face as that of Moteuczoma II in deified form remains a working hypothesis.  It is not a portrait in any conventional sense, but rather a mythologized image of the living ruler who embodies other beings and cosmic elements. If true, this new interpretation would add an important new historical dimension to the long-standing questions surrounding the monument and its overall meaning, and of course regarding the old debate of its identity as Tonatiuh or Tlalteuctli, etc.. To my mind either or both of these interpretations seem possible. In any case, layered with these multi-faceted identities are the labels that suggest the face is a deified image of Moteuczoma II as the Mexica patron deity Huitzilopochtli. Whatever other significances the central face may have, these two names appear to be the two specific written identities featured by the artist who designed the Calendar Stone. This iconic monument thus becomes a more overt political, even personalized, statement, featuring the reigning emperor not only in the cosmic role as the reborn sun and/or consuming earth, but also as the embodiment of time in general.

Note and Acknowledgements

Some readers may be confused by the varied spellings of the Aztec ruler’s name. I use Moteuczoma following my former Nahuatl professor, J. Richard Andrews, who long insisted that common spellings such as “Motecuhzoma” or “Moctezuma” don’t accurately reflect the underlying Nahuatl phonology nor the semantic parsing of the name, meaning “One Who Frowns Like a Lord.”

I thank Emily Umberger and Stephen Houston, who provided very useful feedback. As noted, this essay is an excerpt of a longer study of the Calendar Stone now in preparation, much of which grew out of from my UT-Austin course on Aztec art in the fall of 2015, and a graduate seminar on Mesoamerican iconography in the spring of this year.  I would also like to thank a number of students and colleagues at UT-Austin for their insights, including Tim Beach, Elliot Lopez-Finn, Edwin Román Ramirez, Sergio Romero, and, especially, Stephanie Strauss, who first pointed out the possible diadem on the Calendar Stone’s central face.


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