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.


Becquelin, Pierre, and Eric Taladoire. 1990. Tonina, une cité Maya du Chiapas (Mexique). Études Mésoaméricaines, vol. VI, Tome IV. Centre d’Études Mexicaines et Centraméricaines, Mexico City.

Carrasco, Davíd, and Scott Sessions. 2007. “Middle Place, Labyrinth, and Circumambulation: Cholula’s Peripatetic Role in the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2.” In Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions, eds., Cave, City, and Eagle’s Next: An Interpretive Journey through the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, 426–54. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Carter, Nicholas P., Rony E. Piedrasanta, Stephen D. Houston, and Zachary Hruby. 2012. Signs of Supplication: Two Mosaic Earflare Plaques from El Zotz, Guatemala. Antiquity 86:Project Gallery;

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2011. “The Flowering Glyphs: Animation in Cotzumalhuapa Writing.” In Elizabeth H. Boone and Gary Urton, eds., Their Way of Writing: Scripts, Signs, and Pictographies in Pre-Columbian America, 43–75. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

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.

Karttunen, Frances. 1992. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santa Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 31. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Looper, Mathew, and Yuriy Polyukhovych. 2016. “Two Maya Inscribed Limpet Pendants.” Glyph Dwellers Report 42.

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

Pohl, John. n.d. John Pohl’s Mesoamerica. jpcodices/selden/index.html.

Schele, Linda, and Mary Miller. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum.

Schmidt, Peter, Mercedes de la Garza, and Enrique Nalda, eds. Maya. New York: Rizzoli.

Zender, Marc U. 2004. A Study of Classic Maya Priesthood. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Calgary, Alberta.

Analyzing an Ancient Maya Codex Fragment from Uaxactun 1

Archaeologists seldom ever recover physical evidence of ancient Maya and Mesoamerican manuscripts. One notable exception was the discovery many decades ago of a badly fragmented codex in a tomb at Uaxactun, Guatemala, dating to the Early Classic period. Its remains were recently analyzed by Nicholas Carter and Jeffrey Dobereiner, who report their results in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity.

Multispectral imaging of an Early Classic Codex Fragment from Uaxactun, Guatemala 

by Nicholas P. Carter and Jeffrey Dobereiner

Antiquity, vol. 90, issue 351, pp. 711-725 (June 2016)

ABSTRACT: Multispectral visual analysis has revealed new information from scarce fragments of a pre- Columbian document excavated in 1932 from a burial at Uaxactun, in Guatemala. The plaster coating from decomposed bark- paper pages of an Early Classic (c. AD 400– 600) Maya codex bear figural painting and possibly writing. Direct investigation of these thin flakes of painted stucco identified two distinct layers of plaster painted with different designs, indicating that the pages had been resurfaced and repainted in antiquity. Such erasure and re-inscription has not previously been attested for early Maya manuscripts, and it sheds light on Early Classic Maya scribal practices.

Link to article here

A Note on Spelling Days and Months 1

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Readers of Maya Decipherment and of a great many recent articles may have noticed some inconsistency in the way I and others represent Calendar Round dates (those that mark a given day in the 260- and 365-day cycles).  For example, a date such as the one illustrated here (Figure 1) may be represented in one work as “8 Ajaw 8 Woh” and in another as “8 Ahau 8 Uo.”  I have to admit I’ve been very inconsistent in this practice myself, using the former type of spelling in a book on Maya time (Stuart 2012) yet the latter format in more recent writings. What gives? Here I would like to offer an explanation for this confusing situation, accounting for why I prefer old-school spellings over newer ones. I should also note this is really a personal preference that other students of Maya glyphs may not choose to adopt.


Figure 1. Date record (8 Ahau 8 Uo) from La Corona, Element 56. (Photo by D. Stuart)

In spelling the names of the ancient days and months, early Mayanists such as J. Eric S. Thompson (1950) and Sylvanus Morley simply replicated the forms they found in the early documents written in Yukatek Maya, employing a colonial-era orthography that was established by the very earliest Spanish students of Maya language of that time (Hanks 2010). The pervasive presence of such spellings in early vocabularies and indigenous documents exerted a great deal of influence on early Mayanists and on early epigraphic research. Indeed, until the 1970s and 80s, glyph studies reflected a certain degree of what might be called a “Yucatan bias” – not surprising given the relative wealth of printed source material on Yukatek as opposed to Ch’oloan and Tzeltalan languages.

Beginning in the late 1980s and especially in the 1990s, epigraphers backed away from these old conventions. Refinements in comparative linguistics and the direct participation of indigenous Mayan linguists led to more precise orthographies and standards across Mayan languages. Naturally epigraphers came to adopt these practices, and names for the days and months soon came to be represented just like any other term in Classic Mayan.

After many years of adopting what might seem a more accurate and linguistically sensitive orthography, I’ve now gone back to the old ways for writing dates, preferring for example to write “10 Chicchan 18 Uo” instead of “10 Chikchan 18 Woh.” The reason is quite simple. In most instances we have no direct evidence of how day names were pronounced in the Classic period. Was the first day Imix or Imox? Was the thirteenth day Ben, Been or something else? Ancient scribes wrote day names as logographs (word signs) and only rarely presented any phonetic indicators about pronunciation, thus leaving modern students with many questions, and employing the old Yukatek nomenclature should immediately make clear that these are not necessarily the ancient names for these time periods. I would never want a student to automatically assume that the fifth day was pronounced as Chikchan in eighth century Palenque; in fact it probably wasn’t.

Ancient names for the months are usually far more transparent because the corresponding glyphs are often true spellings. The month we call “Uo” (see the example above) is almost always spelled something along the lines of IK’-AT-ta for Ik’at, in Classic texts. In one intriguing  instance it is spelled wo-hi, reflecting an ancestral form of the Yukatek name used at the time of European contact. Not surprisingly even in ancient times there was some variation in these terms over time and space — another reason we should today employ a neutral system for referencing the days and months that doesn’t presume too much. Put another way, our opting to spell the month as Woh or Wooh instead of Chakat seems to preference one known Classic name over another, adding a new and rather messy layer to an already complex issue. Uo will do.

The way we transcribe hieroglyphs into Classic Mayan should be carefully considered, and in today’s rapidly maturing field of Maya epigraphy it almost always is. My point is that when we refer to Calendar Round dates and other calendar terms we cannot always know the original Classic Mayan terminology.  Even when we do, it’s clear that many names could show some regional and temporal variation.  It seems preferable therefore that we indicate such ambiguity by employing the old contact-period names and their spellings as neutral terms of reference, following a long-established convention. When we are certain of ancient names and terms — Ajaw and Chakat are solid reconstructions, for example — we can and should of course indicate those when transliterating and transcribing actual texts.

It is still important to realize that we are still in a relatively early stage in the true decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic system, most of which took place only in the last three or so decades. It shouldn’t be surprising that Mayanists reassess and refine the standards we use for presenting epigraphic source material. It’s a continuous process.

Sources Cited:

Hanks, William F. Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Stuart, David. 2012. The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya. Random House, New York.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1950. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C.

Xenophobia and Grotesque Fun


Stephen Houston, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube

In the Ming dynasty of China, one document attracted much amused interest. This was the Luochung Lu (臝蟲錄), a treatise on “naked creatures” or barbarians that sold widely at the time (Yuming He 2011:45­–46). Not surprisingly, readers and editors in the later Qing dynasty, itself of foreign origin, found it displeasing in parts.  Intended to be comprehensive, the Luochung Lu organized information about exotic humans into a zoological schema. People could be categorized like so many “bugs, worms, insects, reptiles,” including, as one set of “critters,” those living in the “Country of Japan” or “Dwarf Land,” a place much inclined, it seems, to banditry (Yuming He 2011:50).

The preface of one edition explains the nature of all such exotics: “[b]ecause they do not have ethical principles, love war and battles, take life lightly, and delight in death, they share the nature of tigers and wolves. Because they…are fond of licentiousness, just like the behavior of incestuous deer, their nature and disposition are truly distant from the human” (Yuming He 2011:71).

The pejorative categorization of foreigners is nothing new.  There is, in the recent past, a doubled xenophobia in references, by John Oliver, the comic, to “Drumpf.” Oliver ridicules a xenophobe for the odd-sounding origins of his family name. Or, in the nineteenth century, there are Thomas Nast’s monstrous representations of drunken Irishmen, seen by many in newspapers of the day. We can dig deeper, all the way back to New Kingdom Egypt. The difference is that these depictions mingle contempt for conquered or foreign peoples with an evident pleasure in their exotic beauty.  The canes in the tomb of Tutankhamun show a Nubian and an Asiatic, neither grotesque but obviously non-Egyptian (Figure 1). Tutankhamun probably needed these canes—the pharaoh was not, by latest report, a very healthy person. But even he could rub and squeeze these captives as though he had taken them himself.  A few centuries later, beautiful foreigners of all sorts marched, in terracotta form, across a frieze at Ramses III’s temple at Medinet Habu (Hölscher 1941).  The exotic can be hateful, repulsive but also, in artful hands, appealing and even sympathetic. Their rich clothing and ornament elevated their captor. Such people were worth conquering. Or, as in the Luochung Lu, they might be figures of fun.

Figures _Page_1.jpg

Figure 1   Tutankhamun’s walking stick, 18th dynasty, KV62, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photograph copyright Kenneth Garrett).

Classic Maya relations with foreigners mostly concern Teotihuacan (see Stone 1989, Stuart 2000, and Taube 2003; contacts with Tajín civilization are grossly understudied, perhaps because the evidence of that contact is, by contrast, material and stylistic, without historical detail).  These references fall into three categories: (1) contemporary contacts between still-vital civilizations (Tikal Stela 31); (2) retrospective accounts of contact long after Teotihuacan went up in flames (Piedras Negras Panel 2); and (3) fusions of royal Maya identities with martial elements of a long-gone city (Bonampak Stela 3).  The positive, even prestigious features of that contact receive most of our attention, with good reason. The accounts are textual, vibrant, and imbued with personality.

Yet not all was positive in the Maya perception of Teotihuacanos. There are hints of xenophobia or, much like the Luochung Lu, a comical distaste for foreigners. The first is on the lid of an Early Classic vessel (Binoche and Giquello 2016:#44; also Berjonneau and Sonnery 1985:pl. 350; said to have been in a private collection in Brussels by 1960). The vase appears to be Balanza Black from northern Peten, Guatemala, but with bright polychromed stucco of an avian in Teotihuacan style. What attracts our attention is the head on the lid. Notably non-Maya, it has dark skin, a broad face with flattened head like so many Teotihuacan masks, matted hair sticking upright, snub nose and open mouth.  Grooves run between the brows, the eyes sit far into their orbits. The lips open slightly in song—in fact, the tossed-back position is more bestial than human.  Because of its date, this pot fits into category #1, evincing contact between a still-vital Teotihuacan and the Maya.

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Figure 2.  Stuccoed vessel, northern Peten, Guatemala, c. AD 500 (Binoche and Giquello 2016:#44).

A second image comes from some 200 years later, on a vase owned by a youth or ch’ok (K6315). There is repainting on parts of this vessel, which comes from the Ik’ kingdom near Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala. By this time, Teotihuacan was long past its prime. A Late Classic Maya ruler sits on his throne, conversing with a standing lord. To the front are three other figures. One, in full Maya dress, holds two rattles. Behind him prance two dancers, singers too, to judge from their open mouths. They are slathered in black paint from toe to thick, spikey hair. Hands splay out, the brows are bulbous, noses snubby or retroussé. Their heads and body twist in almost yogic discomfort. The awkward movements are anything but the norm in Maya dance postures. Aside from a red element in the short, dark feathers, the effect is bichromatic, a severe black-and-white. A Teotihuacan emblem, a k’an cross, repeats on their hip-cloths. The glyphs above are difficult to read, but the final element may be ch’o’, perhaps “rat” or “rodent.”


Figure 3a. Late Classic chocolate vessel with scene of dance, Ik’-kingdom, Peten,  Guatemala, c. AD 730 (Jay Kislak Foundation, Miami, K6315, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

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Figure 3b.  Close-up (Jay Kislak Foundation, Miami, K6315, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

A third dates to about the same time, consisting of, among other figurines, two boxing dwarves (Figure 4; Freidel, Rich, and Reilly 2010). One has broken-off limbs; the other, more complete figurine, shows a dwarf in blocking motion with its left hand extended. His right hand clutches a round sap or bludgeon. Otherwise identical, the dwarves differ in their headdresses. In Figure 4 one has a simple panache of feathers.  The example on the left displays unmistakably Teotihuacan head-gear, with goggle-eyes and a curving obsidian blade in the style of that city. Perhaps a Maya boxer was matched up against a “Teotihuacano,” in allusion to some broader conflict between east and west in Mesoamerica. To viewers, boxing dwarves were likely to be droll, a diversion at court.

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Figure 4.  Boxing dwarves from Burial 39, El Peru, Guatemala.

For the Classic Maya, Teotihuacan represented, according to most evidence, a refined and forceful polity. It was envied, remembered, extolled, and probably feared.  Yet these images offer another view. In them, Teotihuacanos are notably non-Maya, but unattractively, even repulsively so.  Their faces run counter to all Maya standards of beauty; their movements lurch in awkward, almost clownish twists—the motion comes close to Aztec depictions of the disabled, the “vagabonds” tossed cruelly from home and hearth (see the Codex Mendoza, folio 70r). If performers, were they thought comical? Were they ancient counterparts to stock roles like the Spaniard or lecherous bishop in Highland Maya festivities? Did they babble and speak unintelligibly like the bárbaros of ancient Greece?  At the least, in Maya minds, not all Teotihuacanos were majestic or regal. Some could be grotesque, laughable, to be mocked more than feared.


Justin Kerr showed his customary generosity by sending along a high-resolution image of a rollout.


Binoche, Jean-Claude, and Alexandre Giquello. 2016. De l’ancienne collection Vanden Avenne, importante collection d’art précolumbien, Mercredi 23 Mars 2016. Paris: Drouot.

Berjonneau, Gérald, and Jean-Louis Sonnery. 1985. Rediscovered Masterpieces of Mesoamerica: Mexico-Guatemala-Honduras. Boulogne: Éditions ART 135.

Freidel, David, Michelle Rich, and F. Kent Reilly III. 2010. “Resurrecting the Maize King.” Archaeology 63: 42–45.

Hölscher, Uvo. 1941. The Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, Part I. Oriental Institute Publications, Vol. LIV. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stone, Andrea. 1989. “Disconnection, Insignia, and Foreign Expansion: eotihuacan and the Warrior Stelae of Piedras Negras.” In Richard A. Diehl and Janet C. Berlo, eds., Mesoamerican After the Decline of Teotihuacan AD 700-900, 153–172. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stuart, David. 2000. “‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History.” In David Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions, eds., Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, 465–513. Niwot, CO: Colorado University Press.

Taube, Karl. 2003. “Tetitla and the Maya Presence at Teotihuacan.” In Geoffrey Braswell, ed., The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction, 273–314. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Yuming He. 2011. “The Book and the Barbarian in Ming China and Beyond: The Luo chong lu, or ‘Record of Naked Creatures’.” Asia Major 24: 43–85.


Chili Vessels 1

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

A great many inscribed Maya ceramics from the Classic period were marked according to their intended contents, with glyphic terms for various types of drinks, foods and other consumables. In this note I discuss a new reading for a glyph as “chili (powder or sauce).” I only know of two examples, but they shed a small bit of light on the use of some vessels and the culture of food and food preparation in Maya courtly life.

Figure 1. Chile sauce vessel in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession no. 1988.1264.

Figure 1. Chile sauce vessel in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession no. 1988.1264.

One vessel is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and bears an unusual dedicatory text (Figures 1, 2).  It is labelled as a certain type of jay (ja-ya), a word that Kerry Hull and Alfonso Lacadena each deciphered some years ago as “clay vessel” (for example Mopan, jaay, “clay bowl” [Hofling 2011:207]). The full sequence of signs in reference to the object is a bit more complex, however, reading yi-chi-li ja-ya. This is then followed by a personal name for the vessel’s owner, named ? TI’-ku-yu, or ? Ti’ Kuy (“? is the mouth (or speech) of the owl”). He may have been a young lord or prince from the eastern Petén region.

MFA chili vessel text

Figure 2. Glyphs reading yi-chi-li ja-ya, y-ich-il jay, on the MFA vessel. (Note: the roll-out view of the text is only partial, omitting the final two glyphs.

At first glance it might be assumed that yi-chi-li is related to the very common and enigmatic term spelled ji-chi, found on a great many examples of the Dedicatory Formula in the section before the possessed noun. Here though it is surely different. The first indication of this the ja-ya glyph, which is noticeably unmarked for possession. Nearly all other glyphs for jay or jaay take the third-person possessive prefix u-, as in u jay, “his/her clay bowl.” Here, however, we would seem to have a base noun jay with an adjective beforehand, which in turn takes the prevocalic form (y-) of the third-person pronoun. The root of this possessed modifier is ich, followed by a –il suffix.

Throughout Ch’olan-Tzeltalan Mayan languages the word ich means “chili (chile).”  This is cognate to the Yucatec root iik, and both forms descend from the proto-Mayan form *iik (Kaufman 2003). It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that “chili” the intended meaning of the ich root in y-ichil jay, for “his chili vessel.” The form ich-il may incorporate a -Vl suffix that derives an adjective from a root noun, but it may also be a derivation to form another related noun, as in Yukatek iikil, “chili sauce.” The form of the MFA bowl suggests it could have been used for a liquid-based sauce, or it might also have been a container for powdered chile as well.

A slightly different uses of the the word ich occur in an incised text found on a sherd excavated at Calakmul (Figure 3).  Here we see a partial text in a somewhat unusual arrangement, reading down in a single column and then to the two glyphs that run outward to the right.

chili sherd. drawing

Figure 3. Drawing of glyphs on sherd excavated at Calakmul, marking its vessel as the “container for the chile of Yuknoom Ch’een, the Divine Kanul Lord” (Drawing by D. Stuart).

We can analyze the vertical portion of the text as:

yo-to-ti yi-chi yu-ku-no-ma CH’EEN-na K’UH-ka-KAN  
y-otoot y-ich Yuknoom Ch’een K’uhul Kanul Ajaw
“the container (literally ‘house’) for the chile of Yuknoom Ch’een, the divine Kanul lord.”

The word otoot is customarily translated as “house” or “dwelling” in most contexts, but when found on vessels it clearly serves as a metaphorical term for a “container”(Stuart 2005). A small flask bearing the glyphs for y-otooch may is a “tobacco snuff container,” for example. The owner’s name is familiar to many as that of Yuknoom Ch’een II, the powerful ruler of the Kaan or Kaanul dynasty who ruled from 636-686 A.D.

The sherd goes on to mention, in the two glyphs running toward the right, a phrase familiar from the MFA vessel discussed above:

i-chi-li ja-yi
ich-il jaay
“(it is) a chile (sauce?) vessel”

This seems to be an unusual reiteration of the pot’s contents, added in case the name-tag construction just beforehand wasn’t clear enough. In this instance the -il suffix on ich may simply derive the adjectival form before jaay, or alternatively we are looking at the derived noun ichil, “chili sauce,” as described above.  For now “(it is) a chili vessel” or “(it is) a chili sauce vessel” seem equally plausible readings of the two hieroglyphs.


Figure 4. Roll-out of a restored Late Classic vessel (K555) bearing a possible i-chi glyph at center of rim text. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Another vase (K555) bears a text that may indicate chili as a possible ingredient in a cacao beverage (Figure 4). Two badly repainted glyphs on the rim of the vessel may identify its intended contents as i-chi ka-wa for ich kakaw, “chili cacao,” but this reading must remain highly tentative.

So in summary, two inscribed Classic Maya vessels can now be identified as as pots for chili, either as a powder a sauce that could be added to a wide variety of delicacies prepared in Maya royal households.  In light of the recent detection of chemical traces of chili in early ceramic vessels from Chiapa de Corzo (Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. 2013, Powis, et. al. 2013) it would be worthwhile to test the two vases described here for any similar signals of Capsicum, much in the same way chocolate and tobacco reissues have been chemically identified on other ancient ceramics (Hall, et. al., 1990; Zagorevski and Loughmiller-Newman 2012).

Note: My initial thoughts on the ich reading arose from discussions with Simon Martin, who kindly showed me an image of the Calakmul sherd back in 2008. The reading has circulated among some epigraphers for a few years now, cited in some public presentations and articles (Martin 2008, Martin 2009). Most recently it found its way into the recent publication by Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. (2013), a portion of which is also available online. This note on Maya Decipherment serves as the first overview of the epigraphic and linguistic arguments behind the decipherment.

Acknowledgements: My thanks go to Simon Martin and Guillermo Kantun for sharing images of the Calakmul sherd, a drawing of which was later published by Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. (2013:Fig. 5a). My own quick sketch of its glyphs should be considered preliminary.

References Cited:

Gallaga Murrieta, Emiliano, Terry G. Powis, Richard Lesure, Louis Grivetti, Heidi Kucera, Nilesh W. Gaikwad, Roberto López Bravo. 2013. El uso prehispánico de los chiles en Chiapas. Arqueologia Mexicana 130:74-79.

Hall, Grant D., Stanley M. Tarka Jr., W. Jeffrey Hurst, David Stuart and Richard E. W. Adams. Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1): pp. 138-143.

Hofling, Charles Andrew. 2011. Mopan Maya-Spanish-English Dictionary. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Kaufman, Terrance. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary.

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

___________. 2009. The Snake Kingdom: History and Politics at Calakmul and Related Courts. Presentation at the UT Maya Meetings, University of Texas at Austin, March 1, 2009.

Powys Terry G., Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta , Richard Lesure, Roberto Lopez Bravo, Louis Grivetti, Heidi Kucera, and Niles W. Gaikwad. 2013. Prehispanic Use of Chili Peppers in Chiapas, Mexico. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79013.

Stuart, David. 2005. Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Classic Maya Ceramics. Sourcebook for the 29th Maya Meetings at Texas, The University of Texas at Austin, March 11-16, 2005.

Zagorevski, D. V. and Loughmiller-Newman, J. A. 2012. The detection of nicotine in a Late Mayan period flask by gas chromatography and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry methods. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 26:403–411.