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.

IMG_0641 (1)

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.

Untitled 2-1 (dragged) 1

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). 

Untitled-1 (dragged) 6

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.


Durán, Fray Diego. 1994. The History of the Indies of New Spain. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Hajovsky, Patrick Thomas. 2015. On the Lips of Others: Moteuczoma’s Fame in Aztec Monuments and Rituals. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Kartunnen, Francis. 1988. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Klein, Cecilia. 1976. The Identity of the Central Deity on the Aztec Calendar Stone. The Art Bulletin 58(1):1-12.

Navarrete, Carlos, and Doris Heyden. 1974. La cara central de la piedra del sol: una hipótesis. Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl, vol. XI, pp. 355-376.

Nicholson, Henry B. 1993. The Problem of the Identification of the Central Image of the Aztec Calendar Stone. In Current Topics in Aztec Studies: Essays in Honor of Dr. H.B. Nicholson. San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego.

Peñafiel, Antonio. 1890. Monumentos del arte mexicano antiguo. A. Asher, Berlin.

Seler, Eduard. 1904. Die Ausgrabungen am Orte des Hauptemels in Mexico. In Gesemmelte Abhandlungen zur Amerikanischen Sprach- und Alterthumskunde, vol. II, pp. 767-904. A. Asher & Co.,  Berlin.

Solis, Felipe. 2000. La Piedra del sol. Arqueología Mexicana, vol VII, no. 41: 32-39.

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

Taube, Karl. 2000. The Turquoise Hearth: Fire, Self Sacrifice, and the Central Mexican Cult of War. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, edited by D. Carasco, L. Jones and S. Sessions, pp. 269-340. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Townsend, Richard Fraser. 1979. State and Cosmos in the Art of Tenochtitlan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and    Archaeology, Number 20. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

Umberger, Emily. 1981. Aztec Sculptures, Hieroglyphs and History. Ph.D. Dissertation, Graduate School of Arts and ciences, Columbia University.

_____________. 1987. Events Commemorated by Date Plaques at the Templo Mayor: Further Thoughts on the Solar Metaphor. In The Aztec Templo Mayor, edited by E. H. Boone, pp. 411-451. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

_____________. 1988. A Reconsideration of Some Hieroglyphs on the Mexica Calendar Stone. In Smoke and Mist: Mesoamerican Studies in Memory of Thelma D. Sullivan, I:345-388. B.A.R, Oxford

Villela, Kristaan D., Matthew Robb and Mary Ellen Miller. 2010. Introduction. In The Aztec Calendar Stone, edited by Villela, Kristaan D. and Mary Ellen Miller, pp. 1-41. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.



by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Among the most violent organized sports in the world is the Calcio Storico, now held in Santa Croce Square in Florence, Italy. If it could, the crucifix by Cimabue in the basilica nearby would weep at the sight: a bloody, testosterone-fueled melee, players (are any without tattoos or steroids in their system?) punching, gouging, going after a ball and, in some cases, going to court after an especially brutal game. In 1570, the French king Henry III, who saw a match, declared it “too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game” (Powell 2015).

Yet the Maya had them beat, as Karl Taube and and Marc Zender (2009) have shown in their pioneering study of “American Gladiators,” the boxers, sap-wielders, eye-gougers, hair-pullers, and eye-socket crushers who combined any and all forms of fierce contact. These contests took place in what we presume to be the arenas par excellence, the ballcourts of Maya cities. The muscled bruisers of the Calcio Storico seem rather to enjoy their punching and smashing, all of them eager recruits to the pain and punishment at hand. But was this true of the Classic Maya?

Taube and Zender provide a key piece of evidence, Tonina Mon. 83 (Figure 1). Mostly found by the French Archaeological Mission on the Fifth Terrace at the site, near Strs. E5-7, -8, and -9, other pieces later came to light in a private collection (Graham and Mathews 1996:113). Additional fragments probably belonged to the same assemblage of carvings (e.g., Mon. 84, 133, Frag. 43). Displaying a series of bound captives, some perched on a running band of their names and dates of capture, Mon. 83  gives more precise information about where they are from (at least one derives from the site of Sak-Tz’i’, in the Usumacinta drainage to the east of Tonina) and who their captor might have been (the very late king known as “Ruler 8” as well as retroactive mention of another ruler, K’inich Baaknal Chahk, about a century before; see Martin and Grube 2000:181–83, 188–289). Probably Mon. 83 was part a composite monument, incorporating an earlier program of sculpture that it strove to copy. The key detail is that the captives are both bound (or bound in part), yet one is abusing the other, pulling his hair while the second figure, a youth (ch’ok), leans back and attempts unsuccessfully to deflect the assault. They seem to be unwilling captives compelled to fight, hampered or restricted by rope. Are they related, as an added misery? The moment is tense, in that fortune has just turned, perhaps, to favor one person over the other. Their bodies, their directed violence–nothing is under their control. They are marionettes of abuse, the outcome amusing or satisfying in some way to their captors.

Tonina Monument 83

Figure 1 Tonina Monument 83 (Graham and Mathews 1996:113, copyright Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University)

There is another twist to the story. The French Mission to Tonina was always prompt in sharing images of new discoveries. It was with some shock to see, in 1981 or 1982, a photograph of Mon. 99, instantly recognizable as a bound woman in the characteristic ripped and cut-out clothing of captives (Becquelin and Baudez 1982:fig. 165). Later, the top of the carving was found, revealing the head of the woman and the verb that describes her “raising” up (to a display platform?), probably during the reign of Tonina Ruler 2 (Martin and Grube 2000:180).


Figure 2  Tonina Monument 99 (Graham and Mathews 1996:99, copyright Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University)

A final image from Tonina now completes the picture, again to surprising outcome. This is Monument 148, currently on display in the site museum–it is a large altar, at some 1.5 m diameter–and, like most of the recent finds at the site, without evidence or written mention of its original location (Figures 3, 4, 5; Graham et al. 2006:81). In an earlier publication with colleagues, I had conjectured that this was a scene of a very public rape, somewhat evoking the Roman depredation of the Sabine women (Houston et al. 206:207–8). The text has a precise Calendar Round date, but that is so eroded that one can only make out what appears to be a Mol month (in this area, the month often takes a wa subfix, e.g., Tonina Monument 20:D4). The man is not named, but the female, her breast dangling out of the huipil garment, is clearly the main protagonist and a figure of some importance: the presence of two IX signs indicates a personal name, followed by a title. That the inscription covers her thigh seems consistent, however, with captive status.

Tonina Monument 148

Figure 3  Tonina Monument 148 (sketch by Ian Graham, inking by Lucia Henderson, Graham et al. 2006:81, copyright Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University).


Figure 4  Tonina Monument 148, close-up for Calendar Round, Tonina site museum (photograph by Stephen Houston). 


Figure 5  Tonina Monument 148, close-up of female personal names, D1, F1, Tonina site museum (photograph by Stephen Houston). 

My impression of erotic violence on this relatively late monument was doubtless correct. But I missed the main point: the format, local visual precedent, the indecorous display of the female, the grappling of hair, and the fact that the elite female holds a sap (a rounded stone) to bludgeon her male opponent force us to an obvious conclusion–that, at Tonina and perhaps elsewhere, females were also compelled to gladiatorial combat. The matching with a male, not, evidently, equipped with a sap, injects some erotic frisson–an added amusement to the captors? Yet her grasp of his hair suggests that she had the upper hand. The moment had turned to her favor.

Long before the Calcio Storico, the Romans opened violent “sport” to women. There is strong evidence, if mostly literary and legal, of female gladiators (ludia [sing.] or “stage performer”). An expensive and ostentatious novelty, prized by emperors, they were far fewer in number than males, yet they shared similar training and expectations (McCullough 2008:197; also Vesley 1998). Many were volunteers, disposed to fight, but there were also some contestants forced into conflict. Both categories of combatant may have existed among the Maya. Nonetheless, at Tonina, the contests projected an air of desperation, wretched for all participants regardless of gender.


Becquelin, Pierre, and Claude F. Baudez. 1982. Tonina, une cité maya du Chiapas (Mexique), Tome III. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les civilisation.

Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 2: Tonina. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 2: Tonina. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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

McCullough, Anna. 2008. “Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact.” The Classical World 101(2):197-209.

Powell, Jim. 2015. “The Calcio Storico, the Most Brutal Sport on Earth–in Pictures.” The Guardian,

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

Vesley, Mark. 1998. “Gladiatorial Training for Girls in the Collegia Iuvenum of the Roman Empire.Echos du Monde Classique 62:85-93.

Tough Talk and Maya Kings


By Stephen Houston, Brown University

Few conflicts begin with blows. First comes talk. Angry words serve to explain and justify an aggression, rallying friends and taunting foes. They advertise hostility to come–indeed, in part, they are that hostility. Among Maya peoples, such crusty talk was not always a good thing. The dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, a peerless source on colonial Tzotzil Maya, likens “barbed” speech, tz’i’tz’i-k’opoj, to something dirty, dog-like, and rabid (Laughlin 1988, I:179–80).

Yet, with kings, anger plays a calculated role. Sometimes, a ruler needs to let loose, to flame out. Respect for him should blend with fear. Why? Because a perception of innate aggression keeps people in line, throwing them off-kilter. Subordinates and enemies never quite know what to expect. The Aztecs may have held just this view. Two of its emperors went by Motēuczōma, “Lord frowning in anger,”a name bristling with claimed irascibility (Karttunen 1992:153).

Elsewhere in Mesoamerica belligerence extends explicitly to depictions of speech (Houston et al. 2006:163, 154, figs. 4.5, 4.14, 4.19, 4.20). The Codex Selden, a Mixtec manuscript dating to c. AD 1555, shows two men speaking “words of flint,” apparently while hurling threats at a traveling party (Figure 1, page 7, Band III, Pohl n.d.). Virgules from their mouths denote words; small blades of flints, each half-stained with blood, underscore the truculent message.

Figure 1 Codex Selden Page 7 Band III

Figure 1   Flinty words, Codex Selden, p. 7, band III.

Dating to approximately the same time, the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, a document from the general area of Cholula, Mexico, displays relatively few virgules. But those that exist, as in Section I, appear to record a “painful moment of schism,” as groups take different paths on their journeys from a cave of origin (Figure 2, Carrasco and Sessions 2007:fig. 15.3). There are violent gestures, pointing, shouting, turned backs–it is quite a row. The scrolls are disconnected, in symmetrical alternation, almost as a sequence of chatter; their color is dark-red. The marks may be, as Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions note, “red-hot words” rather than bloody-minded utterances. Yet the color is suggestive.

Figure 2 Mapa de Cuahtinchan no. 2, I26-32Figure 2   Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, Section I (from Carrasco and Sessions 2007:fig. 15.3)

A clearer example occurs on Monument 1, Finca San Cristóbal, from the Late Classic Cotzumalhuapa civilization of piedmont Guatemala (Figure 3, Chinchilla Mazariegos 2011:fig. 4.25). An excellent rendering by Oswaldo Chinchilla displays, in his words, a “verbal performance…with beautiful flowers and sprouts,” but a plausible alternative is that this records less a “performance” than an almost vegetal visualization of dialogue, growth that entwines but never fuses: the blade-like elements to upper right could characterize hostile speech.

Figure 3 Finca San Cristobal Mon 1

Figure 3  Speech scrolls with possible flints, Finca San Cristóbal Monument 1 (drawing by Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariego, with colors added for emphasis)

Tough talk from Maya kings may account for an enigmatic title of the Classic period. The best-known of these is an alternative epithet for the Naranjo ruler K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk (Figure 4, Martin and Grube 2000:80–81). The title has been glossed as “He of Flint,” “perhaps his childhood moniker,” as Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube suggest in their masterly study of Maya history. But there is another possibility. Long ago, David Stuart deciphered a semblant of the third element as a logograph TI’, for ti’, “mouth” (personal communication, 1995). By extension, ti’ can mean “language” or “speech,” especially in Ch’orti’, to most epigraphers the richest and most relevant resource for decipherment (Zender 2004:Table 5). Beginning as a human head to signal acts of consumption, the glyph soon reached, Stuart discovered, an extreme state of stylization, transforming into T128 in the Thompson catalogue of Maya glyphs (for lucid discussion, see Zender 2004:212–21, figs. 38, 39, Table 5). One version on a panel at La Corona, Guatemala, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, enlists it to spell the title of a secondary lord. Here, the glyph, a truncated face, achieves an even greater stylization, to the extent that it closely resembles the sign at Naranjo (Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Fund, 1965.407, glyph position H1; Schele and Miller 1986:pl. 101a). Thus, for the Naranjo ruler: AJ-TOOK’-TI’, aj-took’-ti’, “he of the flinty speech.” A tough-talking lord, ready for a scrap.

Figure 4 Naranjo

Figure 4   Alternative names of K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk, Naranjo

A similar spelling, from a stairway block found at Anonal, near Ceibal, Guatemala (kindly supplied to me by Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson), shows a “fiery mouth,” K’ahk-ti’, as part of the name of the person buried (we presume) in a tomb (muknal) that had once existed behind this block. The TI’ is nearly identical to that on Naranjo Stela 19.

Figure 5

Figure 5  Spelling of K’ahk-ti’, Anonal, Guatemala (image supplied by Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson).

There is another lord with what may be the epithet. It derives from the site of Chinikiha, on a tributary of the Usumacinta River in Mexico (Figure 6). (Some years past, I had the good fortune to see it on display at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.) The name appears on a large panel—the glyphs are just under 30 cm in height—that records the raising of a headband to the forehead of a new lord (K’AL-?-HU’N tu-BAAH, Schmidt et al. 1998:623, #416; n.b., the dates are difficult to place because of a disconnection between the evident Kib day-sign and the coefficient of the month). In short, an accession to highest office. The name appears to be AJ-TOOK’-ti-TI’, Aj-took’-ti’?, with a probable syllabic reinforcement in the form of a rare version of the TI’ glyph. Regrettably, the panel is broken, and other elements may follow to alter the reading, but this is surely a historical figure. A similar spelling recently noted on a series of limpet shells pertains to gods, who may nonetheless have had ferocious or bellicose natures (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of the Harry K. Wright Collection, 2015.479, and Houston Museum of Natural Science, Loan 48.1997.02; Looper and Polyukhovych 2016:figs. 3, 4, 5).

Figure 5 Chinikiha

Figure 6 Chinikiha Panel (rubbing by Merle Greene Robertson, enhanced here)

The recipients of such tough talk may also have been represented in Maya imagery. Two doleful captives appear on a cylinder vessel of Caana White Incised from Tonina, Chiapas (Becquelin and Taladoire 1990:fig.142a). The base and rim of the vase correspond to usual place for such people, pressed uncomfortably into small spaces, often under the feet of lords. Yet their earspools attract attention here. Each has a clear marking of flint, a recalcitrant material that is unlikely to have been the actual substance of the ornaments. In general, earspools relate to hearing, vocalization, and exhalation, as shown on many examples from the Early Classic period but applicable to later periods as well (Carter et al. 2012; Early Classic Earspools; see also Houston et al. 2004:figs. 4.6, 4.16, 4.17). Perhaps the captives at Tonina showed their warrior-status, their true being, in this way. Or they had to hear, continually and to their dismay, the martial language of victors.

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Figure 7. Incised cylinder vase from Tonina, Chiapas, Mexico (Becquelin and Taladoire 1990:fig. 142a). 

An ideal Maya ruler was not just splendid…he was, on occasion, cantankerous, proud in anger, best left appeased.

Acknowledgements  Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson generously shared their photo of the hieroglyphic stairway block from Anonal, Guatemala.


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