Jesuits, Angels, and Pipil Writing

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

The list of Mesoamerican writing systems is not large. Of these, only a few are deciphered to a standard that would satisfy a Champollion or a Ventris. Among the most enigmatic and sparsely documented must be the script of the Pipil, a group of Nahuat speakers who lived in parts of Guatemala (near modern-day Escuintla), El Salvador, and even Honduras. A linked group, the Nicarao, flourished in the Rivas area of western-most Nicaragua, and possibly into the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica (the classic study of these peoples remains Fowler 1989). In Colonial times, their larger settlements tended to cluster on the south coast of Guatemala and El Salvador (Sampeck 2015:fig. 1).

There is little doubt that the Pipil wrote (Sampeck 2015:477; see also Sampeck 2013). What is less clear is what can be said of their system.

The only pictorial source, a meager corpus of signs and a purported text from Nicaragua, occurs in the Recordación Florida of Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán (1969–1972 [1699]:72–75). A powerful figure in the Kingdom of Guatemala, Fuentes y Guzmán (c. 1634–1700) soared at relatively young age to the position of Regidor Perpetuo, later becoming an Alcalde of what is now Antigua Guatemala (Warren 1973:105). This appointment doubtless resulted from his own merits but also received, one imagines, a heavy boost from influential relatives: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, originator of many elite families in Guatemala, was an ancestor. Fuentes y Guzmán wanted more, however, and sought a position as “chronicler of the Kingdom of Guatemala” (Warren 1973:105). That ambition precipitated into the Recordación Florida, along with other books, now lost.

A carefully considered work on Pipil writing by Kathryn Sampeck (2015:figs. 4, 6) reviews the signs in the Recordación, with close comparison to the original manuscript in the Archivo General de Centro América (Figures 1 and 2; see also Chinchilla Mazariegos 1990:45–46). It is fair to say that Sampeck, who makes her case with detailed attention to the signs, takes these pages at face value. Her premise is that, in some measure, Fuentes y Guzmán recorded a Pipil version of the interpretive trove offered by Bishop Diego de Landa. The signs were not Maya, but, as reproduced by Fuentes y Guzmán, formed an interpretable, coherent record of a late Pre-Columbian/early Colonial writing system that could be related to systems in central Mexico. To Sampeck, the content was heavily focused on tribute, “showing their unusual emphasis of cacao and money as well as the ways in which Pipil writing defined their literary identity” (Sampeck 2015:477). Yet the inventory of signs suggested some variance from sister-scripts in Mexico. “Pipil writing appears to be characterized by more schematic graphic symbols, a distinctive literary identity for the region” (Sampeck 2015:480).


Figure 1

Figure 1. Pipil writing as explained by Fuentes y Guzmán (1969–1972, II:72–73).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Further Pipil writing as explained by Fuentes y Guzmán (1969–1972, II:74–75).

Mayanists were burned long ago when they dismissed Landa’s “alphabet,” widely recognized as the key to phonic decipherment (e.g., Valentini 1880). But, read today, Fuentes y Guzmán on Pipil script induces a disquiet that is hard to shake. What were his sources really, how faithful was his account of this writing?  There is an alternative hypothesis. A missing inspiration may be someone who does not appear in much (any?) scholarly mention of the Recordación Florida. That is Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a Jesuit polymath, “the last man who knew everything,” resident in Rome yet broadly read and admired by figures in Colonial Mexico such as Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, both more or less contemporaries of Fuentes y Guzmán (Findlen 2004:343–359). A well-educated person of the time, in Guatemala too, where the Jesuits were present, would surely have known of Kircher’s work. The location of the Compañía de Jesus, the Jesuit center of learning and piety in the Colonial capital of Guatemala, was purchased from Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s descendants in 1655, during Fuentes y Guzmán’s lifetime and almost certainly with his knowledge (Jesuit building in Antigua Guatemala). 

That Kircher influenced Fuentes y Guzmán is plausible. Consider Fuentes y Guzmán’s illustration of the Postclassic site of Zaculeu, Guatemala, here compared to Kircher’s views of pyramids from his Oedipi Aegyptiaci (1653) and his last book, the Turris Babel (“Tower of Babel,” 1679; Figure 3). Much differs, but some that does not. Note the blocky, stepped pyramids at the same rough angle and orientation. Figures 3A and 3C have the same smaller pyramids to the side, if edited in number and adjusted in placement. Figures 3A and 3B display a ditch and the Nile respectively, but they loop in roughly the same place above the pyramid, which clips this feature slightly. As Oswaldo Chinchilla points out, Fuentes y Guzmán specifically attributed such constructions to influence from Egypt and “la torre de Babilonia,” Old World models par excellence (Chinchilla Mazariegos 1999: 52).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Fuentes y Guzmán (A, 1969–1972, III:53) and Kircher (B, C, 1679 and 1653, respectively).

Another such template may inspire Fuentes y Guzmán’s “hieroglyph” (jeroglífico) for the “life of the king Sinacam” (Figure 4, left). The emblem to the right is from Kircher (1653:367). To the left, in the “hieroglyph,” there is no ark or set of Egyptian gods, no horses or rooster. But there is the same stepped motif and, above, what looks like a stab at the same peacock, if reversed by Fuentes y Guzmán.


Figure 4. Fuentes y Guzmán’s “hieroglyph” for Sinacam (left) and mystic emblem from Kircher (1653:367).  

Look at the Pipil signs themselves. Many may be copies of Aztec signs (if misinterpreted or mis-reproduced) from books that Fuentes y Guzmán refers to as showing “similar things” (e.g., deLaet 1633; Fuentes y Guzmán 1969–72, II:73, fn61). The flint glyphs and circles are close to those reproduced by Kircher, also in his treatise on Egyptian writing; these Mexican signs derive from the Codex Mendoza, an early Colonial source on Aztec tribute (Kircher’s image of the Codex Mendoza f2r). The internal line of the flint always runs from upper-left to lower-right (cf. Figures 1, 2 above). The circles, each with dot inside, are like the Codex too, but recall Kircher’s exposition on an identical sign for the number “one” among the Egyptians (1653:42–43).

Some of the glyphs recorded by Fuentes y Guzmán are heavily conditioned by Western convention. This affects Mexican systems, too, but, among the Pipil signs, we have the presence of axes and “lozas” (crockery) with depth of field or Aztec flowers juxtaposed with western ones; there is even a cozy house in 3/4 view (Figures 1, 2). These reinforce a feeling that the author was being loose or injecting features with a high degree of license. Or, to be less charitable, he was simply making things up, a point underscored by the Nicaraguan slab of wood and Fuentes y Guzmán’s rather opaque description of what actually reached his hands (the piece was said to have been in the “poder” of a certain venerable [“antiguo”] Mercedarian friar (Fuentes y Guzmán 1969–1972:74). If it was not in Fuentes y Guzmán’s possession, and merely described by means of ekphrasis, to be imagined by him, then the signs are identical to those he reproduces elsewhere. If one set is made up, why not all of them?

Kircher has become a figure of ridicule to later generations, especially in his research on Egyptian writing (Pope 1999:28–38). But the Jesuit did know Coptic, the descendant language of ancient Egyptian and still spoken as a daily language during Kircher’s lifetime (it has since shifted to liturgical use). The alert reader has to wonder, is the supposed sign for “400,” the so-called sontle, a Coptic ph, from the Greek, as rendered by Kircher in his 1653 publication (Figure 5)? Is the triangle with dot above Coptic d or th? Are other signs, especially those embellished with circles, the ur-writing of esoterica (Chaldean letters from Babylon) or the writing revealed by angels (Drucker 1999:181, 183, 193)?  The final signs on the Nicaraguan slab, of three spike-like wedges, bring to mind one of the main components of the Jesuit coat of arms, the three nails driven into Christ’s flesh at the Crucifixion (Figure 6).


Figure 5. Comparison of esoteric scripts from Kircher and signs from Fuentes y Guzmán. 


Figure 6. The nails of Christ in the Jesuit coat of arms and the final signs of the Nicaraguan slab.

There may be a reason the purported Pipil script has “more schematic graphic symbols.” They were lifted from Kircher’s widely distributed works and composed by Fuentes y Guzmán into a mélange that brought the ancient world, then thought to be the origin of New World peoples, into union with Aztec images from deLaet and others.

Did the Pipil write in indigenous script? Probably. Is Fuentes y Guzmán a reliable source on that writing? Perhaps not.


Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 1999. Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán, precursor de la arqueología americana. Anales de la Academia de Geografía e Historia de Guatemala 74:39–69.

deLaet, Johannes. 1633. Novus Orbis seu descriptionis Indiae Occidentalis Libri XVIII authore Joanne de Laet Antverp. Novis talulis geographicis et variis animantium, Plantarum Fructuumque iconibus illustrata. Elsevir, Leiden.

Drucker, Johanna. 1999. The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination. Thames and Hudson, London.

Findlen, Paula. 2004. A Jesuit’s Books in the New World: Athanasius Kircher and His American Readers. In Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, ed. P. Findlen, pp. 329-364. Routledge, New York.

Fowler, William. 1989. The Cultural Evolution of Ancient Nahua Civilizations: The Pipil-Nicarao of Central America. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Fuentes y Guzmán, Francisco Antonio de. 1969–72.Obras históricas de Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán. Edición y estudio preliminar de Carmelo Sáenz de Santa María. Vols. 230, 251, 259 of Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, desde la Formación del Lenguaje hasta Nuestros Días. Ediciones Atlas, Madrid.

Kircher, Athanasius. 1653. Oedipi Aegyptiaci: Complectens Sex Posteriores Classes, Tomi Secundi, Pars Altera. Vitalis Mascardi, Rome. Kircher

—1679. Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Primo Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio, confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. Jansson-Waesberge, Amsterdam.

Pope, Maurice. 1999. The Story of Decipherment: From Egyptian Hieroglyphs to Maya Script. Rev. ed. Thames and Hudson, London.

Sampeck, Kathryn E. 2013. El campo letrado: Reflexiones sobre la lectura y la escritura en regiones mayas de Mesoamérica. Mesoamérica 55:191–204.

—2015. Pipil Writing: An Archaeology of Prototypes and a Political Economy of Literacy. Ethnohistory 62(3):469–495.

Valentini, Philipp J.J. 1880. The Landa Alphabet: A Spanish Fabrication. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 75:59–91.

Warren, J. Benedict.  1973. An Introductory Survey of Secular Writings in the European Tradition on Colonial Middle America, 1503-1818.” In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume Thirteen: Guide to the Ethnohistorical Sources, Part Two, ed. H. F. Cline, pp. 42–137. University of Texas Press, Austin.

More on the Paddler Gods

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

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

Tikal canoe scene

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

Paddlers variants

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

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

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

TNA Mon 110

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

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

Ixlu St 2

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

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

Quirigua St C Paddlers

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

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

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

Figure 6. The Paddler Triad.

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

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

References Cited

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

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

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

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

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

More Deathly Sport

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

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

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

thumb_IMG_2341_1024 (1).jpg

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 1.49.04 PM.png

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 2.16.35 PM.png

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

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


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

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

Maya Stelae and Multi-Media

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

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

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

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

Stela with feitshes above

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

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

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

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

Figure 2

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

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

Ixkun stela holes_Page_1

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Classic Maya Marimbas?

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

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

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

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 10.11.24 PM.png

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 10.08.43 PM

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).

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 5.08.51 PM

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.