The Origin of Copan’s Founder 2

The first Classic king of Copan, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KYKM), had a complicated life story spanning much of Mesoamerica. His arrival at Copan in AD 426 was the seminal event of the dynasty, but where did he come from? For many years we’ve known about his strong symbolic connections to Teotihuacan, but even within the Maya area he seems to have had roots outside of the Copan Valley, perhaps in the central Petén lowlands. New information, noticed last week while visiting Copan, now leads to an important revision to KYKM’s story, adding a new and unexpected dimension to the founder’s significance in Maya history.

Before citing the newest evidence, one clarification is necessary: KYKM was not a Teotihuacano. Some might assume his highland ethnicity based on KYKM’s appearance in later Copan iconography, where he consistently assumes the garb of a Teotihuacan warrior (best known on Altar Q). Yet his earliest portrait on the Motmot marker, possibly carved while he was still living, shows his “Maya-ness”, and only much later do we see the visual connections to highland Mexico. The key distinction is that KYKM’s political identity was deeply rooted in Teotihuacan and its pan-Mesoamerican role as a hub of political authority. The written evidence from Copan suggests that he acquired sanction for rule at Teotihuacan before founding Copan’s ruling line. Specifically, Altar Q tells us that in AD 426 KYKM is said to have “received k’awiil” (k’am k’awiil) at or in connection with Teotihuacan. K’am k’awiil is a term used elsewhere in Maya inscriptions in association with the establishment of new political lines and offices. Teotihuacan’s historical role in the Early Classic may presage that of later Tollan, “the Place of Bulrushes,” which served a center of political pilgrimage throughout Postclassic Mesoamerica, even among rulers of different ethnicities.

Now back to Copan. Last week, while looking closely at Stela 63, I noticed for the first time that KYKM has a special title with his name glyph, just barely preserved on the front on the monument (see attached photo, at bottom). The very last glyph of the inscription is damaged, but it shows his personal name, followed by what looks to me to be the place glyph 3-WITZ-a or Uxwitza’, “Three Hills Water,” along with ch’ajoom — a common ruler’s title almost as generic in meaning as ajaw, “lord.” This is a toponymic title, and clearly connected to a similar title KYKM carries on the later Stela J, where he is named as the “Three Hills Lord” (also in attached photo).

Uxwitza’, “Three-Hills-Water,” is a known place name, identifiable with one and only one Maya site: Caracol, Belize. There Three-Hills-Water is cited as a local name in both Ealry and Late Classic inscriptions, and rulers of Caracol are often portrayed standing atop animate witz mountains wearing the headband of the number 3 (hence 3-WITZ). The evidence from Stela 63 is, I feel, basic and hard to ignore: KYKM was a Caracol lord by origin.

Jane Buikstra’s strontium analysis of the founder’s bones, excavated by Bob Sharer and David Sedat within the so-called Hunal tomb, points to KYKM having spent his younger days outside of the Copan valley, probably in the central Maya lowlands. The new historical evidence would seem to agree with Buikstra’s analysis, although far more discussions on the topic will tell us for sure. A Caracol origin for the Copan founder also conforms to an odd connection ceramic Copan seems to have had with Belize – something now to be analyzed with renewed effort. The connection might also be reflected in the unusual mention of a later Copan ruler on Caracol’s Stela 16.

I suspect KYKM was born as a member of Caracol’s nobility at a time when “pre-dynastic” Copan was already a place of siginficant size and importance. He may have already had personal connections to Copan, but in AD 426 journeyed to Teotihuacan to receive the emblems and sanction of office (K’awiil), and then established a ritual center — and a new political order — where Copan’s acropolis now lies, shortly before the turn of the Bak’tun.

More to come…



Reconstructing an early warrior scene at Palenque Reply

Three similarly sized carved stones at Palenque are all that remain of an early mosaic relief dating to the long reign of K’inich Janab Pakal (see attached image). The original panel was demolished in ancient times, and all three stones were re-used by the Maya for construction blocks. Two of the carved stones can still be seen in the walls of Temple IV in the North Group (one upside down), and a third was found by archaeologist Alberto Ruz in the masonry of the aqueduct, just to the east of the Palace. The two Temple IV blocks (left and center in the accompanying drawing) have long been seen as probable fits, but I think the third can now be added, giving a hint of a larger figural scene. The image provided, using drawings by Linda Schele, shows the likely arrangement of all three blocks. I’m sure others have noticed this as well.


An inscription ran along the top of the figural scene, broken only by the large feathered headdress of a warrior between the sixth and seventh extant glyphs of the horizontal band. Smaller glyphs look to be name captions for one or two other figures, and two or three small vertical elements may be all that remain of their upright spears (Piedras Negras Panel 2 might offer a vague parallel).

The inscription records a military victory by K’inich Janab Pakal. Unfortunately all that remains of the date — the month position “17 Pop” — is not enough to provide a full reconstruction. The verb is ch’ahkaj, “was conquered,” but the placename for the defeated site, in the third glyph (tz’i?-sa-ti), is difficult to analyze. Interestingly, the text also includes references to two of Pakal’s important “lieutenants,” Aj Sul and Chak Chan.

It’s hard to make out much more from such paltry remains, but I find it extremely interesting that such an early sculpture appears on mosaic blocks — something we never find in Late Classic Palenque art. By the end of Pakal’s reign this mode of presentation for relief carving seems to have given way to the use of large thin slabs of limestone, first used perhaps inside the Temple of the Inscriptions.

The Stucco Portraits on the Temple of the Inscriptions (Part I) 1

This is the first of several anticipated postings about new interpretations of the various stucco sculptures associated with Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions.

First the piers of the upper temple.


The last published interpretation of the piers appears as Chapter 3 in The Code of Kings, by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews (1998). I’ve reproduced their illustration above, which nicely summarizes their thoughts on the identities of the four standing figures on Piers B, C, D and E. Flanking the central doorway are a female (Pier C) and a male (B), both of whom are heavily damaged. The outer portraits are somewhat better preserved, showing key details in their headdresses. As has been known for many years, the figure of Pier E, at far right, wears a fused snake-and-jaguar helmet, clearly a name glyph corresponding to Kan Bahlam, “Snake Jaguar.” Schele, Mathews, and many others (myself included) have equated him with Pakal’s distant predecesor Kan Bahlam I.

Detail of the headdress from Pier B, showing the name glyph of K'an Joy Chitam (Sketch by David Stuart).

Detail of the headdress from Pier B, showing the name glyph of K’an Joy Chitam (Sketch by David Stuart).

The headdress on Pier B is also fairly well preserved, although I was recently very surprised to see that all previously published drawings are innacurate in many important details. My own sketch of the head of the Pier B figure is reproduced here above, based on a careful examination of the Maudslay photograph taken in early months of 1890. This portrait exhibits is another name glyph headdress, identified by Schele and Mathews as the lineage founder K’uk’ Bahlam I. However, the details of the photo, as indicated in my sketch, clearly show it to be a peccary head with an infixed k’an cross in the eye. This can only be K’an Joy Chitam, the name of another early ruler of Palenque as well as the second of Pakal’s sons.

I take the woman and man on the innermost piers (C and D) to be a wife and husband pair, possibly Ixtz’akbu Ajaw and K’inich Janab Pakal, or alternatively Pakal’s parents, Ix Zak K’uk’ and K’an Hix Mo’. I see no way of choosing between these options, but I doubt there are other possibilities to seriously consider. As earlier interpretations have suggested, the outer figures, now identifiable as K’an Joy Chitam and Kan Bahlam, could represent earlier royal ancestors, but I now believe another possibility is well worth considering. The two outer figures on Piers C and E may also be portraits of Pakal’s two important sons, one of whom (K’inich Kan Bahlam or Kan Bahlam II) oversaw the completion of the Temple of the Inscriptions. This king is named prominently in the interior tablets of the temple, as well as in the surviving portion of the long stucco text on Pier F. Both of Pakal’s sons were well into adulthood at the time of their father’s death, and I suspect their portraits on the piers, possibly in the company of their deceased parents, helped convey a strong sense of dynastic continuity.

My next post (Part II) on the Temple of the Inscriptions stuccoes will focus on the infants cradled by each of the four figures, widely interpreted over the last few decades as images of the deified K’inich Kan Bahlam.

Carnegie photo archive on-line Reply

As many readers already know, a wonderful photo resource for Maya archaeology and epigraphy is Harvard University’s Visual Information Access archive. It contains readable scans of field photos from various projects overseen by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from the 20s through the 50s (Uaxactun, Chichen Itza, Copan, etc.). Just enter a site name in the search engine and you’ll see lots of unsorted images, including many unpublished gems.

More on Galindo’s glyphs Reply

Following up on my earlier posting on “Galindo’s Glyphs”:

Sabastian Matteo of the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Historie in Brussels kindly wrote me with the news that photos of at least two of the four stucco glyphs collected by Galindo in 1831 do in fact exist, among the Heinrich Berlin archival materials he is now cataloging. The actual stucco glyphs are presumably still in the collections Musée d’el Homme in Paris, although I have no direct confirmation of this. Anyway, a big thanks to Sebastian for sending this image along and allowing me to post it here.