Preliminary Notes on Two Recently Discovered Inscriptions from La Corona, Guatemala 10

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin), Marcello Canuto (Tulane University), Tomás Barrientos Quezada (Universidad del Valle de Guatemala), and Maxime Lamoureax St-Hillaire (Tulane University)

During the 2015 excavation season at La Corona, Guatemala, two new sculpted blocks were recovered in excavations of the site’s main palace overseen by one of the authors, Maxime Lamoueax St-Hilaire. Both blocks are parts of larger compositions that were removed from their original settings and re-set in a masonry wall near the northeast corner of the palace complex. The precise archaeological context of the discovery will be presented separately, and described in detailed at the upcoming SImposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala.

Each stone has been assigned an “Element” designation in accordance with the nomenclature system developed for La Corona’s corpus of sculpture (Stuart et. al. 2015). Each stone seems to be part of a larger panel or sculpted step, so it is important to note that their designations may be modified in the future to reflect new understandings of their original form and presentation.

Also, we should stress that the following commentary is itself preliminary. More formal and complete presentations will appear as part of the series La Corona Notes, and in subsequent publications sponsored by the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona, directed by Marcello Canuto and Tomás Barrientos Quezada.

Element 55

Element 55 shows a small intricately carved scene of a costumed ruler engaged in a dance performance. The date is the period ending 7 Ahau 3 Cumku, or January 20, 702 A.D. The accompanying hieroglyphs name the ruler as ? Ti’ K’awiil, a prominent king of Calakmul sometimes known in the literature as “Took K’awiil'” (a designation based on his variant name glyphs; see Martin and Grube 2000:112). This appears to be the left-half of a larger scene that would have presented another figure facing the dancer, in all likelihood a local La Corona ruler.

The main portion of the text (from B1 to D6) reads:

u baah ti ahk’ot ? ti’ k’awiil k’uhul kaanul ajaw elk’in(?) kaloomte’ ux te’ tuun

“(it is) his person in (the act of) dancing, ? Ti’ K’awiil, the Holy Kaanul Lord, the east Kaloomte’, (at) ux te’tuun.”

La Corona, Element 55. Preliminary drawing by Mary Kate Kelly. (Please do not re-publish without permission of the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).

La Corona, Element 55. Preliminary drawing by Mary Kate Kelly. (Please do not publish without permission of the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).


The inscription on the left side of the block gives the Calendar Round date 7 Ahau (A1) 3 Cumku (A4), along with Glyphs G9 (A2) and F (A3). This corresponds with the half-k’atun period ending falling on The verb phrase (B1) and the name and titles of the king (C1-D5) make up most of the rest of the text, ending in a place name uxte’tuun (Calakmul), indicating where the dance performance took place. The glyphs are very finely carved in a style reminiscent of Block V from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (the somewhat infamous “2012 block”). A certain scribal flair is evident in these hieroglyphs which display unusual head variant signs and ornate forms, such as the unusual “east” glyph (D4) displaying the head of the sun god K’inich Ajaw emerging from the open maw of an alligator.

The name of ? Ti' K'awiil from Dos Pilas Stela 8. Drawing by Ian Graham.

The name of ? Ti’ K’awiil from Dos Pilas Stela 8. Drawing by Ian Graham.

The Calakmul ruler depicted, ? Ti’ K’awiil (“Took’ K’awiil”) assumed the throne in 698, as revealed in two historical texts unearthed in 2012 (one at La Corona, another at El Peru) (Stuart et. al., 2014). He is named on several other monuments at Calakmul, and a particularly beautiful version of his name, similar to the one given here, occurs Stela 8 of Dos Pilas. The ruler’s dance on marked a special occasion in his life history, being the first major period ending of his reign.  He would live at least three more decades and be responsible for some of Calakmul’s most beautiful monuments, including those erected around Structure 1 on

Element 56

Element 56 is a all-glyphic block, probably the second part of a longer text with its first portion still missing. In format this partial inscription is very much like the “2012 block” discovered a few years ago in Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. It displays precisely the same grid dimensions as that block, in fact, and dates to just a few years before. Its style bears a strong resemblance to other texts known from La Corona dating to the end of the seventh century.

La Corona, Element 56. Preliminary drawing by David Stuart. (Please do not publish without permission of Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).

La Corona, Element 56. Preliminary drawing by David Stuart. (Please do not publish without permission of Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).

Summary of inscription:

The partial text recounts several important events involving the La Corona ruler named Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk, leading up to his accession in 689 and culminating in the dedication of an ancestral shrine for the new king’s deceased parents in 690.

The text emphasizes aspects of Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk’s political career, and especially close interactions with the king who reigned at Calakmul in those years, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. Some of the history mentioned on Element 56 describes ceremonial dressing and adornment, no doubt reflecting the complex process of royal investiture before Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy’s inauguration on September 9, 689. He returned to Saknikte’ two weeks later on September 23, to establish his new political presence, and shortly thereafter focused his attention on the construction of a shrine (wayib, “sleeping place”) for his father and mother, who died within a few months of each other over twenty years earlier, back in 667.

It is difficult to know what the missing first half of this inscription had to say, but we suspect it may have opened with a Long Count date 3 Ben 11 Zip and an accompanying record of the shrine dedication. It may also have had something to say about the end of the reign of Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk’s older brother, K’inch ? Yook, who is last heard from in 683.

We should mention that the name Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy refers to the same individual we have previously called Chak Ak’ach or Chak Ak’ach Yuk (“Red Turkey”). The new name reflects a revision based on clearer spellings in this new inscription (Houston, Stuart and Zender, in preparation).

Discussion, Dates and Episodes 9 Chicchan 13 Muan (December 7, 688) (missing)

The inscription opens in mid-passage, clearly indicating it was once part of a larger text. First glyph (pA1) is the place name SAK-NIK-TE’, for the local toponym of La Corona, Saknikte’, meaning “white blossom.” The date iassociated with this episode is missing but it can be reconstructed based on the time interval indicated afterward. The event is missing, but given what comes next it seems reasonable to suppose that this passage once recorded Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy’s departure from Saknikte’ as he heads off to Calakmul. 13 Muluc 17 Muan (December 11, 688) (pB3-pA4)

Four days later a new event takes place, written with the phrase pehkaj yichnal yuknoom yich’aak k’ahk’ kaloomte’ “he was summoned(??) before Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, the kaloomte’” (pB4-pA6). That is to say, the La Corona ruler has an important meeting and conference with Calakmul’s king. It is possible that his older brother K’inich ? Yook had recently passed away or otherwise been de-installed as ruler at La Corona, leading to the need for a face-to-face discussion.  6 Muluc 12 Ch’en (August 8, 689) (pA7-pB7)

Many months later we find Chak Ak Paat Kuy beginning an investiture rite, probably while he is still in Calakmul. The first of these events is recorded here, possibly taking place at dawn or sunset (a temporal adverb appears at pC1). The verb statement is unique, never seen before in any Maya text: po-tza-ja U-pa-ti, for pohtzaj u paat, possibly “his back is wrapped” (pD1-pC2). This happened under the watchful direction of the Calakmul king. We suspect that the La Corona nobleman was being given a ceremonial snake back-rack, much like the one we see depicted on Element 55. A similar costume is shown worn by his older brother K’inich ? Yook on La Corona’s Panel 1.  3 Cauac 2 Yax (August 15, 689) (pD3b-pC4a)

One week later Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy’s “say huun is tied (kahchaj).” We are not quite sure what a say huun is, but it probably is some paper-cloth adornment or accessory, possibly a type of headband or wristlet. Whatever it is, the same event is recorded as a pre-accession rite on Aguateca’s Stela 1 and also at Naranjo’s Stela 32. Here the spelling of the object is sa-HUUN, whereas elsewhere it is more fully sa-ya-HUUN.  6 Ik 5 Yax (August 18, 689) (pC5)

Three days later “he sets-up(?) at Ahktuun.” The phrase is somewhat enigmatic, but it may indicate the La Corona lord’s movement in or around Calakmul as he prepared for his upcoming accession ceremony, recorded in the next passage. The verb is the same one we often find associated with formal “foundation” events for royal courts at new locations. Ahktuun (literally “turtle-stone”) is the basis for a word for “cave” (often spelled actun in modern Yukatek), although here it may refer to an architectural or urban feature. The passage also cites the verb huli, “he arrived” in connection with an enigmatic place name (tz’i?-ni). 12 Imix 4 Zac (September 9, 689) (pD6b-pC7a)

Here we have the record of Chak Ak Paat Kuy’s accession as king. The episode mirrors an accession reference we have on La Corona, Stela 1, falling just one day earlier. The king’s name and title phrase is especially long, and includes elements not seen elsewhere (although his name on HS2, Block 5 shows a few parallel elements).  3 Etz’nab 1 Ceh (Septmeber 26, 689) (pF4-pE5)

Seventeen days later Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy finally seems to be back at La Corona. As the inscription here puts it very directly, ? t-u-hulil ti tax ajaw, “he ‘sets-up’ upon his arrival as the new king.”  8 Ahau 8 Uo (March 16, 692) (pG2-pH2)

In the last two columns we read how the “arrival” just cited took place 2.9.2 before 8 Ahau 8 Uo, “when will occur 13 k’atuns.” This is an anticpatorty record that establishes the events in relation to cosmic time, noting their proximity to the upcoming k’atun ending.

Closing passage of Element 56, noting the fire-entering ceremony at the parents' mortuary shrine (

Closing passage of Element 56, noting the fire-entering ceremony at the parents’ mortuary shrine (“sleeping place”). Photograph by David Stuart. 3 Ben 11 Zip (April 9, 690) (pH4-pG5)

The text closes with a stand-alone record of a major ceremony that occurred after the arrival and before the k’atun ending. This is och-k’ahk’ “fire-entering” – a dedication or activation rite at an architectural feature called “the three platform houses.” This almost certainly refers to a collection of structures atop the palace at La Corona. This is the designation of the “the wayib (shrine)” for Chak Nahb Chan and Lady Chak Tok Chahk, the mother and father of Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy and his elder brother and predecessor K’inich ? Yook.


Both stones are partial commemorations of important ceremonies. One is a visual record of a calendar dance ritual at far-off Calakmul, perhaps involving a local ruler as well. The other is a detailed textual record of a local nobleman’s transformation into a ruler under the close supervision of Calakmul’s powerful king, culminating in a ceremony honoring his beloved parents.

This note represents a preliminary analysis of two newly excavated sculptures from La Corona. More detailed analyses will appear in future issues of the La Corona Notes. More to come.

UPDATE: I would like to thank Jens Rohark for pointing out glaring inconsistencies in my initial conversions of the dates on Element 56. These have now  been corrected to reflect the Martin and Skidmore 584286 correlation.


Several colleagues have offered valuable thoughts and comments on these new finds, including Stephen Houston, Marc Zender and Simon Martin. Many thanks to them. The authors would also like to thank the Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala (IDAEH) and the Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes for their continued support in the excavation, conservation and analysis of the two sculptures presented here. We would also like to extend our appreciation to PACUNAM and to the National Geographic Society for their financial and logistical support of the Proyecto Arqueologico Regional La Corona (PARLC) in the 2015 season. The individual authors also acknowledge the help and assistance of their respective academic institutions, Tulane University, the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, and The University of Texas at Austin.


Houston, Stephen, David Stuart and Marc Zender. In preparation. The Reanalysis of a La Corona King’s Name. To appear in La Corona Notes.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London.

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto and Tomas Barrientos Quezada. 2015. The Nomenclature of La Corona Sculpture. La Corona Notes, Number 2. Mesoweb.

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto, Tomás Barrientos, Jocelyne Ponce and Joanne Baron. 2015. Death of the Defeated. Historical Data on Block 4 of La Corona’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. La Corona Notes, Number 3.

Death of the Defeated

The third on the series of La Corona Notes is now posted on Mesoweb. This study focuses on one of the inscribed blocks recently unearthed at the site, bearing new historical details about the life of the famous Calakmul king named Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ (a.k.a. “Jaguar Paw” or “Jaguar Paw Smoke” in the earlier literature).

Death of the Defeated: New Historical Data on Block 4 of La Corona’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2

Sculptors and Subjects: Notes on the Incised Text of Calakmul Stela 51 9

by Simon Martin (University of Pennsylvania), Stephen Houston (Brown University), and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

Figure 1. Calakmul Stela 51 (photograph by Frances Morley, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University)

Figure 1. Calakmul Stela 51 (photograph by Frances Morley, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University)

Calakmul is justly famed for the quantity of its carved monuments, although their lamentable state of preservation means that very few can now be appreciated in their original form. One of the exceptions is Stela 51, which Sylvanus Morley described as “the most beautiful monument at Calakmul” (1933:200) (Figure 1). It was discovered with others at the base of Structure I by Cyrus Lundell in 1931 and first documented on the Carnegie Institution’s expedition to the site in 1932 (Morley 1933:200; Ruppert and Denison 1943:111, Fig.50c). The stela was stolen at some point in the 1960s, when it was cut into portable slabs, but later recovered. It currently stands in the Sala Maya of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

The central portrait is that of the Calakmul king Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, who erected the monument in 731 CE, making it one of the last of his reign. Our interest here lies not in this image, or even the main inscription found on the front and sides. Rather, it focuses on a small text incised into the background. This mat-like arrangement of 14 glyph-blocks suffered losses when the monument was broken up by looters, but we are fortunate that a photograph taken by Frances Morley on the 1932 expedition shows the undamaged text (Figure 2a). This has allowed a new drawing to be made, incorporating a few details better seen in more recent sources (Figure 2b).[1]

Analysis of this inscription is aided by a partial duplicate found on Calakmul Stela 89 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:121, Fig.53b; Grube 1992). This second monument was also commissioned in 731 CE and associated with Structure I, although it was not set at the base but high on an upper tier of the temple. It is stylistically related to Stela 51 and hewn from the same type of hard limestone.[2] It now resides at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, and a new drawing based on photographs from the museum archive is also presented here (Figure 3). The text on Stela 89 is somewhat abbreviated, but nonetheless contributes some valuable additional data.

Figure 2. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 51 (F1-J1): a) Photograph by Frances Morley (courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University); b) Drawing by Simon Martin.

Figure 2. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 51 (F1-J1): a) Photograph by Frances Morley (courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University); b) Drawing by Simon Martin.

Figure 3. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 89 (K1-8). Drawing by Simon Martin (based photographs from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne).

Figure 3. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 89 (K1-8). Drawing by Simon Martin (based photographs from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne).

Small, incised texts of this kind are now well known to be sculptor’s signatures. All of them feature the “lu-bat” compound that David Stuart (1989a:154) first recognized as a reference to carving and incision. Subsequent research has since extended it to stucco work as well, and it even appears on mold-made ceramics where only the master form was carved. In its possessed version, with a yu-prefix, the compound can be understood as “his carving,” and is followed by the name of the artisan responsible for the work (when suffixed by an –il, it signals a relation to an object, as in “the carving of a dwelling” [see Yaxchilan Lintel 25:P1-Q1]). The idea that these are personal signatures finds its strongest support in a set of eight found on El Peru Stela 34, each of which is rendered in a distinctive hand (Stuart 1989b, cited in Coe 1992:251, Fig.62).

We see the possessed lu-bat compound on Calakmul Stela 51 at G1, the name of the sculptor beginning at G2 with SAK-?-ni. The bird-head here resembles that for MUWAAN “hawk” but lacks the diagnostic feathers in its mouth (sometimes joined by a claw) that mark a predator of fellow birds. This plainer version stands a good chance of reading IKIN “owl,” a term that is widely, if thinly, attested across the Maya region and may be a reference to a particular species (Kaufman 2003:611).[3] The name continues at G3 with yu[ku]-?-?-TOOK’, a sequence shared with the aforementioned king, Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil. It is missing the terminal k’awiil both here and at K3 on Stela 89, though this is also true of many versions of the royal name. The next sequence in both versions provides a political affiliation, the non-standard emblem glyph K’UH-?cha-TAHN-na WINIK for k’uhul ‘chatahn’ winik. This is a title with deep roots in the region, which was used at Calakmul itself (Martin 1996, 2008) as well as at a number of sites lying to its south (Boot 1999). During the Late Classic rulers of ‘Chatahn’ commissioned the well-known codex-style ceramics, with the most prodigious production taking place under its ruler Yopaat Bahlam towards the end of the seventh century CE. Yopaat Bahlam’s home center remains unknown but the appearance of his name at Tintal on a different ware, red-on-cream, makes this sizable city 68 km south of Calakmul one of the contenders (Hansen et al. 2006). After an obscure sign at H1b the nominal concludes at H2 with SAK-WAY-si sak wayis, a title carried by the rulers of sites situated south of Calakmul and north of El Peru. At most of these centers it carries a k’uhul prefix, but this is never employed in the case of ‘Chatahn’—presumably because it was already carried in k’uhul ‘chatahn’ winik.

A new “lu-bat” compound at H3 introduces a second name, this one beginning SAK-? The unknown head-form with forward-swept hair and pursed lips is something of a rarity. The corresponding sign on Stela 89 at K6a is ‘o, raising the possibility that it is another form with that value. Next at I1 we see yi-BAAH/ba. Though it is conceivable that there is some kind of possession here, we can see no clear evidence that it links two people in this case. The name continues at I2 with TZAK-BAHLAM-ma “Conjure(d) Jaguar,” which is repeated on Stela 89 at K7.

The next compound on Stela 51, at I3, is somewhat effaced but seems to incorporate the term AJAW “lord.” As a title it would present a counterpart to the k’uhul ‘chatahn’ winik epithet seen in the previous phrase. The two signs that would form its subject are NAAH “first” and another that initially resembles WITZ “mountain/hill.” Political titles beginning with naah are not at all common, but one is seen at Uxul, a site 30 km to the southwest of Calakmul (Grube 2005:92-93, Fig.6). Examples on Uxul Stela 6 and Stela 10 include AJAW and function as emblem glyphs based on the local toponym (Grube 2008:Fig.8.51, 8.55).

The relevant main sign there, surviving in complete form on Uxul Stela 14 (Grube 2008:Fig.8.62), is a rare one that shares features with the syllabogram lu, but is distinguished by its pronounced inner curl and the absence of a comb-like element. This uncatalogued “lu-semblant” is undeciphered yet seems to have separate logographic and syllabic values, and may even group more than one similar-looking hieroglyph. If we return to Calakmul Stela 51 and compare it to the main sign of I3 we find a close match. Despite the absence of an additional suffix present at Uxul, this appears to be the same title.

Intriguingly, the phrase on Stela 89 differs at this point, and, instead of this emblem, we find the humbler sequence AJ-NAAH-ku-ma at K8. This constitutes a title of origin or association reading aj naahkuum or “Naahkuum person.” The recurrence of the naah element gives reason to believe that the core reference is the same in both texts; in turn suggesting that ku-ma might be a syllabic substitution for the lu-semblant logogram. This would make KUUM or KU’M potential values for that particular variant. The short-vowel word kum appears as “pot” in certain Mayan languages (Kaufman 2003:983). If the relationship between the two naah-initial terms in these texts is all that it seems to be then we have a named lord of Uxul, a center which may have been known, at least in part, as naahkuum.[4]

The name of our prospective Uxul lord continues at I4 on Stela 51, with a different spelling of the sak wayis title known to be used at this site, this time bearing the k’uhul “holy” prefix. The final compound, at J1, seems to feature a snakehead, but is otherwise too eroded to read. Neither of these signs has a counterpart on Stela 89.

* * *

The incised texts on Calakmul Stela 51 and 89 are conventional sculptor’s signatures in a number of respects, but are unusual in two significant ways. First, they are the only ones to name major lords and indicate that they were personally responsible for the creation of the work. There are a few cases in which artisans carry high social position, but no others in which the governing elite of distant political centers are specified in this manner. We need not take this at face value, but instead consider the ways that these characters may have commissioned these two monuments and stand as symbolic or rhetorical producers—an adaptation of the normal function of signatures. What both ‘Chatahn’ and Uxul shared was their close affiliation to Calakmul and their subordination to that great capital for at least a century of the Late Classic. That status is clearly pivotal to understanding why they appear in this context.

This leads to the second feature, the introductory ye-be-yu sequence at F1 that we have thus far passed over. This is unique to Stela 51 and we surmise that it is linked to the unusual prominence of the featured characters. Although still not completely understood, one possibility is that the term is based on the root eb “to give/deliver” that developed from Proto-Mayan *ab “work” (Kaufman 2003:58; see also Kaufman and Norman 1984:119 for the derived Proto-Ch’olan nouns *ebet “messenger” and *ebtel “work”). Another possibility is that it relates to the Proto-Mayan root *ye’ ~ *ya’ “to give” (Kaufman 2003:775). In Proto-Ch’olan we find the form *ye’-be  “to give” (Aulie and Aulie 1978:123; Kaufman and Norman 1984:137; Kaufman 2003:775) in which *-be functions as an “indirect object marker” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:139). The latter is attested in both branches of the Ch’olan language, although it has yet to be identified in Classic Mayan inscriptions. This second interpretation would see the initial y- as part of the root, implicating a passive or mediopassive construction along the lines of “it is given him/them” or “it gets given him/them.” The role of the terminal yu as a verbal suffix is unclear—it could yet prove to have a phonological role that forms a bridge to the prevocalic yu of the lu-bat compound—and this is one of the uncertainties that render the precise semantics a little opaque. Nonetheless, either verbal root would imply that the text on Stela 51 is a statement of gifting or tributary payment, and if this is so then this small inscription is a revealing statement about the relationship and obligations between Calakmul and two of its leading clients.


1. Additional details were taken from a sketch by Ian Graham made in its current condition, together with photographs by Jorge Pérez de Lara and Michel Zabé. The glyph designations are revised from those used in Ruppert and Denison (1943:111).

2. These monuments are part of a set from this same date executed in stone that may have been imported to the site. Joel Skidmore (pers. comm. 2014) reminds us of the potential relevance of this point to the ideas that follow.

3. A matching SAK-?IKIN-ni compound appears as the name of a different individual on the vase K2784 and K2803 in Justin Kerr’s database (

4. The similarity of this name to that of Nakum, a major center in the eastern Peten, would be no more than coincidental.

Calakmul Stela 51 signature text:

F1 ye-be-yu
G1 yu-?xu[lu]
G3 yu[ku]-?[?]-TOOK’
G4 K’UH-?cha-TAHN-na
H1 WINIK-ki-x-?-ti?
H3 yu-?xu[lu]
H4 SAK-?o
I1 yi-BAAH/ba
I4 K’UH-WAY-si
J1 x-x-CHAN?-x

Calakmul Stela 89 signature text:

K1 yu-?xu[lu]
K3 yu[ku]-?[?]-li-TOOK’
K4 K’UH-?cha-TAHN-WINIK-ki
K5 yu-?xu[lu]
K6 SAK-o-x-BAAH/ba
K8 AJ-NAAH-ku-ma


We would like to express our thanks to Barbara Fash of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, and Anne Slenczka of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne, for their assistance with images. Additionally, Jorge Pérez de Lara generously provided one of his photographs for study and Joel Skidmore made helpful comments.


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___________. 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.

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____________. 1989b. “The Maya Artist: An Epigraphic and Iconographic Study.” Senior Thesis, Princeton University.

Courtesans and Carnal Commerce

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Diego Rivera was clearly fascinated by the riches of the Aztec market at Tlaltelolco. His mural, painted in 1944-1945, visible today on the second floor of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, glories in the vibrancy of an imperial economy. Vendors hawk while merchants bicker, counting with upright fingers. Nearby, slave-traders examine the teeth of human stock. Tortillas are there, too, close to belly-up frogs. Dogs, deer, iguana, and fish lie in good order or, like a fat little xolo dog, they mewl and squirm—all soon to be purchased, cooked, and eaten.

Figure 1.  Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

Figure 1. Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

The most arresting figure, however, is a woman in white (Figure 1). Central to the composition, she hikes her skirt and invites the attention of several leering men. One of them, to upper left, looks like a Rockefeller! At Rivera’s coy insistence, we are all voyeurs. Almost alone in the murals, the woman’s body faces the viewer. Her bright red lipstick, elaborate costume, and long loose hair, described and illustrated in Aztec sources, heighten the wanton allure. Never one for the nuance, Rivera surrounds the lady with an aureole of calla lilies, likely to be Rivera’s coded image for female privates (his portrait of Natasha Zakólkowa Gelman, painted a year earlier, in 1943, uses the same framing device).

Rivera’s lady is, of course, an Aztec prostitute or āhuiyani, someone who gives pleasure but in debased or self-indulgent ways, a “flower woman” (Karttunen 1983:8; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:198). She “lives in wickedness….she goes about in gaudy dress, drunk, besotted,” “shamelessly, presumptuously, conspicuously washed and combed”; she “sells her body” and “paints her face…her hair falls loose”; she goes “about…in the market place,” “places herself at the market, adorns herself at the market place” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:12, 13, 55, 89). Yet, the stern judgment in these phrases from the Florentine Codex—its main promoter was, after all, a Franciscan—does not offer a complete picture, for such women performed openly in sacred dances with warriors (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:93, 98-99, 102, 110; see also Durán 1971:435, in a somewhat opaque source that may refer to more elevated “kept women” who had their own “guardians or duennas”).

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

The “harlot” could also comfort a sacrificial captive. She “caressed him….made him forget his sorrows. And when the time came for the bathed one to die, the harlot took everything…[t]hat which he wore he placed upon her; that which he had when he had been living in the likeness of another, had walked with his head high…had gone in high esteem” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:155). A peculiarity, drawn to my attention by Karl Taube, is that depictions of young and older harlots in the Florentine Codex show them standing on water, grasping flowers in one hand and, curiously, the glyph for water in the other (Figure 2). It is possible but, on reflection, unlikely that this sign merely reinforces the first letter in āhuiyani (from ā-tl, “water”). Underfoot, gripped in the hand, the symbols hint at deeper and more complex meaning.

For a Mayanist, this evidence raises an obvious question. Did such women exist in the Classic period? And, if so, what ambivalences, if any, surround such commercialization of the female body? Most treatments of female identity among the ancient or Colonial Maya do not mention prostitutes (e.g., Joyce 2000) or allude to them in secondary citations (Ardren 2008:8). One source does describe the prostitute in Yucatan but as a being “constructed as an ethnic outsider and an enemy” and, in the Books of Chilam Balam, a figure whose very label is an insult to be thrown at others (Sigal 2000:68, 223).

Yet the early dictionaries refer widely to such figures. For a rapid cull of terms:

Colonial Tzendal (Ara 1986:319, 504): Most terms relate to adultery or fornication but also, when postfixed by xichoc (“man”), to sodomy.

putañero                                lav
putañear                                lael

Colonial Tzotzil (Laughlin 1988, I:221, 253, 263-264): roots based on sexual penetration (kob) and, perhaps, scourging (maj) and “lust” (mul), with the added nuance of concubinage.

whore                                    ‘ix ta majel; kobvan; majavil ‘antz
whoremaster                        mulavil xinch’ok

Colonial Yukatek (Bolles 2001): associated with agouti or hares (tzub), the latter a well-known attribute of the Moon Goddess and a symbol of procreation. For tzub, the meaning is quite explicit: “la muger mala de su cuerpo ora sea publica ora no…Ah con tzubul: puta que ella se comvida y vende” (Bolles 2001); ya’om ties to pregnancy.

manceba (concubine)           tzub
mala mujer de su cuerpo     ya’om
puta pública                           ix kakbach

It could be that these words express a purely colonial preoccupation, a priestly concern for rooting out vice and controlling sexuality. By that view, little prostitution existed before the Spaniards. Such words merely reflected the prurience of missionary minds. But this cannot be the whole story. Speaking of young men, not long after the Conquest, Diego de Landa refers to the wide use of prostitutes: “bad public women”…“who happen to ply this trade among this people, although they received pay for it, were besieged by such a great number of young men, that they were harassed to death” (Tozzer 1941:125). Possibly, as some suggest for the Aztec evidence, the Colonial sources conflated a more accepted Pre-Columbian practice of marketable sex with later versions seen in negative light (Arvey 1988; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:200). As to price, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, writing of Nicaragua, records that the going rate for such acts was 8 to 10 beans of chocolate (Tozzer 1941: 95fn417). To put this in perspective, buying a slave was only 10 times that much (ibid). In all likelihood, sex work was a lucrative business throughout Mesoamerica.

Figure 3.  SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

Figure 3. SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

For the Maya, a key piece of evidence came to light with the discovery of the Chiik Nahb murals at Calakmul, most of which date to the 7th century AD (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012; Martin 2012). Concerned with trade, these paintings appear within what must have been a market facility built at the height of competition between the great cities of Calakmul and Tikal (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:Figure 2; for the standard source on this conflict, see Martin and Grube 2000:104-111). The viewer wonders at the erotic beauty of the serving ladies, their body paint, their jade jewelry. The women pour drinks, offer atole while dressed, at times, in diaphanous clothing that reveals breasts, areola, and plump thighs (Figure 3).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

It is difficult to avoid the sense that the woman offer hospitality and welcome accommodation or participate in marketing, but in subtly sexualized ways. Karl Taube has noted similar trading ladies in figurines from the Alta Verapaz, also bejeweled, gowns slung low, hair carefully coiffed (Figure 4; Houston et al. 2006:110, fig. 3.4). Vending women have been seen, too, in other traditions of Lowland Maya figurines (Halperin 2014:fig. 3.36). Many wear hats, perhaps to show that they came from far distances, but possibly to protect a delicate complexion. They both are and are not a standard vendor, involved in trade yet outfitted in ways that appear anomalous.

Unfortunately, the glyphs associated with the principal lady in the Calakmul paintings, the “Lady in Blue,” resist easy decipherment (Martin 2012:78-79). A more overt example of “good time gals,” from a bowl dating to about AD 600 may connect to a term for “water-place,” IX-HA’?-NAL (Figure 5, Coe 1978:pl. 11; Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.18). These women, certain to be goddesses, service older deities. They stroke their sides, fan faces or hold up mirrors while the men daub their mouths or faces. Most carry exactly the same name—a token of shared identity?—or use a sparse description, IX, “female.” The watery attribute of Aztec prostitutes seems more than a coincidence. It may reflect some widespread notion of “watery women” or “women of watery locales” whose sexual behavior differed, in unsettling, less controllable ways, from that of other ladies.

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Another term occurs with paramours of God L on the celebrated “Princeton Vase” (K511, Coe 1978:pl. 1). Repainted in parts, their glyphic labels involve two securely deciphered signs, IX, “lady,” and NAAH, “building”—the finale female, just by God L, is described as one of “five” (HO’) such women, quite a harem. The less clear sign is the head variant of the number “two.” It could read CHA’, suggesting a homophone for “metate,” cha’, thus linking the ladies to a gendered place, a “house of grinding stones.” But there is another possibility. The head variant has a human fist, fingers obscured, atop the head of a youth or young woman. The fist corresponds exactly to the glyph for OCH, “enter” (Stuart 1998:fig. 8) and may spell out a term for “entered” (“penetrated”?) lady. Thus, by this second analysis: IX-OCH-‘Female’-NAAH, “lady of the entered/penetrated-female house”…or “brothel.” Still, it is unclear how this would relate to a semblant deity name on Palenque’s Tablet of Temple XIV:C9.

The main point is that these women are unlikely to be spouses. A plausible view is that they traffic in generous reception and consumption, with more than a hint of physical favors to come. Two ideas arise. The first is that, at Calakmul the Lady in Blue embodied, if not a real historical person, then the essence of gracious hospitality. Or, as a bolder suggestion and a nod to the eroticism of the murals, she operated as an exemplary or deified procuress, patronized rather than punished by the state, a facilitator who attracted other kinds of business. She labored, it seems, away from direct male supervision; she took charge. There was no partner, no husband. In one image, a young woman, a mere drab, perhaps a unique depiction of a Maya slave, served as her assistant (Figure 2). The Florentine Codex says of the procuress: “She is of a house…She induces, seduces with words, incites with others. Adroit of language, skilled of speech, she is a fraud…She receives guests. She secures recompense, payment from others. She robs one—she constantly robs one” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:94). However, if present at Calakmul, such a woman discharged a role of dignity and importance.

What to make of the scenes at Calakmul? According to a recent, cross-cultural review, compensated or venal sex tends to divide by practitioner, ranging from streetwalkers and occupants of brothels to “well-educated and often financially secure” courtesans (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Eroticized entertainment did not always lead to consummation. As an exalted outlier, the geisha or geiko of Japan seldom—at least in the ideal—consorted sexually with clients, especially after the system began to coalesce in the 18th century (Downer 2006:223). Whatever the status, sex workers left archaeological signatures in the form of cells or “cribs,” characteristic forms of consumption, such as “alcohol and luxury food consumption…in binge economies,” and, “in the case of high-end prostitutes, an investment in wearable wealth” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:46). Indeed, a sexual purpose may explain the buildings with tightly packed, benched rooms near sweatbaths at Piedras Negras (e.g., Structure O-3; Child 2006:fig. 4.23; also Houston et al. 2006:117, fig. 3.13). Globally, the cultural impact was great. An entire volume of comparative scholarship extols the arts of the courtesan, from music to poetry and dance (Feldman and Gordon 2006).

Prostitution has been described as the “oldest profession” and as the “oddest,” an “illicit commerce in which it is the labor performed, rather than goods or distribution system, that is the object of state control” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Yet how “illicit” was such commerce? In Roman Pompeii, prostitution was quite “licit” if heavily exploitative (McGinn 2004:261-262). At the least, there is evidence of ambivalence. In Edo Japan, various shogun or city officials tried to restrict the “floating world,” the demi-monde of sex workers, musicians, and actors, to sectors like Yoshiwara, near modern-day Asukasa in Tokyo (Screech 1999:53). But this was not because of disdain for sex. The most likely reason was curtailment of possible places for intrigue or periodic anxiety that the values of the “floating world” would soften society.

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

More the point, the “Lady in Blue” raises basic matters of identification. Scholars often refer to “noble” ladies or “idealized elite” women and goddesses in imagery of the Classic Maya period. This applies to Jaina figurines, too (O’Neil 2012:409). But what if an entire category of Maya society has been overlooked? As Michael Coe observes, the females participating in enema rituals could have been ladies of pleasure (personal communication, 2014). Consider the fully-modeled container at the Princeton Art Museum, with its flower-markings, elaborate dress, and loudly painted lips and forehead (Figure 6). Or the Early Classic scene on an enema pot from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1993.441) and tapaderas on Early Classic food bowls (K1550, K189). Then there is the image, from the Princeton Art Museum, of an elaborately dressed woman giving an enema to a trader (Figure 7). Could “elite” ornament or jewelry only have been the commissions of dynastic figures and other nobles? Or, consistent with cross-cultural data, were some baubles ordered in quantity by courtesans?

Sex work has its own history. As one example from archaic Greece, the high-status hetaira—the most polished of courtesans—was probably fashioned under the impetus of aristocratic males, who sought to redefine their own masculinity by interaction with such females (Kurke 1997). Through women’s bodies and, tragically, through their abuse, men worked out what it meant to be men (Glazebrook and Henry 2011:9). Perhaps this same aestheticized redefinition of roles affected the “pretty ladies” of the Classic period.

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

The curious feature of the Calakmul evidence is its contrast with Rome, which was less involved in direct control of sex work and accorded it some degree of “autonomy” (McGinn 2004:263). If correctly identified, the practices shown there and elsewhere bear the heavy impress of polity. The building in which the murals were found can only have been a royal commission, involving painters and scribes of the highest and most inventive attainment. This was no casual commerce but a systematic use of female bodies for dynastic advancement.

Acknowledgements: Mike Coe, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube were most helpful with comments

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