Saturday, September 16, 2006

Maya News Updates 2006, No. 37a: Oldest Writing in Mesoamerica? The Cascajal Stone Block (Veracruz, Mexico). Image Update
Online news reports at various sites provide additional images of the small stone block or slab found at Cascajal, Veracruz, Mexico:

(photograph from BBC News)

veracruz_stone-monument3 veracruz_stone-monument_dr2
(photograph from Eurekalert)(drawing from report)

(drawing from New Scientist)

Maya News Updates 2006, No. 37: Oldest Writing in Mesoamerica? The Cascajal Stone Block (Veracruz, Mexico)
With a personal interest in the origin, evolution, and disappearance of world writing systems an archaeological discovery in the Mexican state of Veracruz may hold significant clues to the appearance of writing in Mesoamerica. In the online version of September 14, 2006, the New York Times reported the following on an important, and hitherto unknown to me, find made already in 1999 (report written by John Noble Wilford, New York Times; edited by Maya News Updates):
A stone slab found in the state of Veracruz in Mexico bears 3,000-year-old writing previously unknown to scholars, according to archaeologists who say it is an example of the oldest script ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere.
Sixty-two distinct signs are inscribed on the stone slab, which was discovered in the state of Veracruz in Mexico.

The order and pattern of carved symbols appeared to be that of a true writing system, according to the Mexican scientists who have studied the slab and colleagues from the United States. It had characteristics strikingly similar to imagery of the Olmec civilization, considered the earliest in pre-Columbian America, they said.
Finding a heretofore-unknown writing system is a rare event. One of the last such discoveries, scholars say, was the Indus Valley script, identified by archaeologists in 1924.
The inscription on the stone slab, with 62 distinct signs, some of them repeated, has been tentatively dated to at least 900 B.C., and possibly earlier. That is 400 years or more before writing had been known to exist in Mesoamerica, the region from central Mexico through much of Central America — and by extension, to exist anywhere in the Hemisphere.
Scientists had not previously found any script that was unambiguously associated with the Olmec culture, which flourished along the Gulf of Mexico in Vera Cruz and Tobasco well before the Zapotec and Maya people rose to prominence elsewhere in the region. Until now, the Olmec were known mainly for the colossal stone heads they created and displayed at monumental buildings in their ruling cities.
The inscribed stone slab was discovered by Maria del Carmen Rodriguez of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico and by Ponciano Ortiz of Veracruz University. The archaeologists, who are husband and wife, are the lead authors of the report of the find, which will be published Friday in the journal Science.
The signs incised on the 26-pound stone, the researchers said in the report, “link the Olmec to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system and reveal a new complexity to this civilization.”
Noting that the text “conforms to all expectations of writing,” the researchers wrote that the sequences of signs reflected “patterns of language, with the probable presence of syntax and language-dependant word orders.” Several paired sequences of signs, scholars said, have prompted speculation that the text may contain couplets of poetry.
Experts who have examined the symbols on the stone slab said they would need many more examples before they could hope to decipher them and read what is written. It appeared, they said, that the symbols in the inscription were unrelated to later Mesoamerican scripts, suggesting that this Olmec writing might have been practiced for only a few generations and may never have spread to surrounding cultures.
Stephen D. Houston of Brown University, a co-author of the report and an authority on ancient writing systems, acknowledged that this was a puzzle, and would probably be emphasized by some scholars who question the influence of the Olmec on the course of later Mesoamerican cultures.

But Dr. Houston called the discovery tantalizing, saying, “It could be the beginning of a new era of focus on the Olmec civilization.”
Other participants in the research include Michael D. Coe of Yale; Karl A. Taube of the University of California, Riverside; and Alfredo Delgado Calderon of the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Mesoamerica researchers who were not involved in the Veracruz discovery agreed that the signs appeared to be a true script, and that the slab could be expected to inspire more intensive study of the Olmecs, whose civilization emerged about 1200 B.C. and had all but disappeared by 400 B.C.
In an accompanying article in Science, Mary Pohl, an anthropologist at Florida State University who has excavated Olmec ruins, was quoted as saying, “This is an exciting discovery of great significance.”
A few other researchers were skeptical of the dating of the inscription, noting that the stone was uncovered in a gravel quarry where it and other artifacts were jumbled and may have been out of their original context.
The discovery team said that ceramic shards, clay figurines and other broken artifacts accompanying the stone appeared to be from a particular phase of Olmec culture that ended about 900 B.C. But they acknowledged that the disarray at the site made it impossible to determine whether the stone had originally been in a place relating to the governing elite or to religious ceremony.
Richard A. Diehl, a specialist in Olmec research at the University at Alabama and another co-author of the report, said, “My colleagues and I are absolutely convinced the stone is authentic.”
The stone slab first came to light in 1999, when road builders digging gravel came across it among debris from an ancient mound at Cascajal, a place the archaeologists called the “Olmec heartland.” The village is on an island in southern Veracruz about a mile from San Lorenzo, where ruins have been found of the dominant Olmec city, which stood from 1200 B.C. to 900 B.C.
When the stone surfaced, Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Ortiz were called in, and quickly recognized the potential importance of the find.
Only after six years of further excavations searching for more writing specimens, and comparative analysis with previously known Olmec iconography, did the two archaeologists invite other Mesoamerica scholars to join the study earlier this year. Though some other reported examples of Olmec “writing” in recent years failed to stand up to scrutiny, the team concluded that the Cascajal stone, as it is being called, was the real thing.
The tiny, delicate symbols are incised on the concave top surface of a block of soft stone that measures about 14 inches long, 8 inches wide and 5 inches thick.
Dr. Houston, who was a leader in deciphering Maya writing, examined the stone looking for clues that the symbols were true writing and not just iconography unrelated to a language. He said in an interview that he detected regular patterns and order, suggesting “a text segmented into what almost look like sentences, with clear beginnings and clear endings.”
Some of the pictographic signs were frequently repeated, Dr. Houston said, particularly ones that looked like an insect or a lizard. He suspected that these might be signs alerting the reader to the use of words that sound alike but have different meanings - as in the difference between “I” and “eye” in English.
All in all, Dr. Houston concluded, “the linear sequencing, the regularity of signs, the clear patterns of ordering, they tell me this is writing. But we don’t know what it says.”
(Source: New York Times, September 14, 2006 [Online Edition])
On Friday September 15, 2006, an excellent and more elaborate report appeared at, written by Joel Skidmore ( and available in PDF.
Further illustrated reports on this important 1999 find can be found on the web, for instance, at:

If the present find is indeed "first writing" in Mesoamerica in the "true sense" of writing remains to be seen although the signs on this small stone bloque are seemingly organized in a linear format, the sign inventory is limited: 20 discernable or distinct signs within a "text" of 62 signs. Future research in the Mexican state of Veracruz may thus hold further clues to the origin of writing in Mesoamerica.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Maya Object of the Month 2006, No. 1 (September)
In 1933 Erwin Dieseldorff published his third volume in the series "Kunst und Religion der Mayavölker." In this lavishly illustrated volume Dieseldorff published objects from his own collection, as well as objects from other (private) collections from both Guatemala and Mexico. The subject of this first Object of the Month served him in this publication as Tafel 7, Abbildung 10 (Plate 7, Figure 10). The private collection of which it was part is simply described as "Privatsammlung in Merida" (private collection in Merida), with no indication to whom the collection actually belonged (the photograph was taken by Prof. R. N. Wegner). Dieseldorff did not mention any other carving or incision on the vessel.
The vessel illustrates the upper torso or bust of a male human being, looking to our left side. As his headdress one can recognize the head of the Water Lily Jaguar (a jaguar head, on top of the head a water lily), as a nasal motif it has two bone-like tubes (Kettunen 2005: Fig. 56). The male individual portrayed has a simple "nose-fin" ornament (compare to Kettunen 2005: Fig. 58; Proskouriakoff 1950: Fig. 20), that runs from his forehead to the tip of his nose. Between his arms he holds a stylized water lily stem that terminates in a blossom on one side and the rhizome on the other. His portrait is placed within a curved element that carries aquatic and water lily related characteristics, one may refer to it as a water lily cartouche (Coe 1973: 120).
In April 1931 the artist M. Louise Baker was in Merida where she was allowed to make watercolor paintings of several exquisite ceramic objects in private collections (Danien 2006). One such collection contained a ceramic bowl of which Baker made a small thumbnail sketch, but also a detailed extension of the hieroglyphic text (Danien 2006: Figure G-7). At that time the vessel belonged to the collection of Oswaldo de Camara, Merida, Yucatan, which was in the possession of his widow, Doña Julia Peon de Camara.

The thumbnail sketch is small, but it contains all the pertinent characteristics of the vessel photographically illustrated by Dieseldorff. Note a human bust inside a curved element, an elongated object strectched towards the upper right. If this is the same vessel, than the vessel illustrated by Dieseldorff probably was in the possession of Doña Julia Peon de Camara.
It would not be strange to expect a hieroglyphic text on the other side of the Dieseldorff vessel. The well-known catalog "The Maya Scribe and His World", edited and written by Michael D. Coe, contains several vessels with an iconographic scene on one side and a diagonal text on the other (Nos. 56-57, 59-61, 63-65). Three of these vessels depict a male human burst within a water lily cartouche (Nos. 59, 60, & 61). However, none of these vessels is the same as the Dieseldorff vessel as pertinent detail in the portraits, Water Lily Headdress, and cartouche is different. If my identification is correct, the M. Louise Baker drawing is at present the only record of the hieroglyphic text belonging to the Dieseldorff vessel.
The hieroglyphic text of the Dieseldorff vessel, as drawn by Baker (turn drawing to the left for correct top to bottom reading order), can be transcribed as:

Provisional transliteration and translation: ujay yuk’ib’ ta yuta[l] tzi[hi]l [ka]kaw kelem(?) sajal kalomte’ "(it is) the clay cup (bowl), the drink-instrument for food(?) of tzi[hi]l kakaw of Kelem(?) Sajal Kalomte’."
Four of the vessels and hieroglyphic texts illustrated by Coe are very close to this particular text. The hieroglyphic text on Coe 1973: No. 59 can be transcribed as:

Provisional transliteration and translation: ujay yuk’ib’ ta yuta[l] tzi[hi]l [ka]kaw kelem(?) sajal b’a[h]kab’ "(it is) the clay cup (bowl), the drink-instrument for food(?) of tzihil kakaw of Kelem(?) Sajal B’ahkab’."
The hieroglyphic text on Coe 1973: No. 60 can be transcribed as:

Provisional transliteration and translation: yuk’ib’ ti tzihil [ka]kaw kelem(?) sajal u-yul "(it is) the drink-instrument for tzihil kakaw of Kelem(?) Sajal, (it is) his work."
The hieroglyphic text on Coe 1973: No. 63 (Kerr No. 4467) can be transcribed as:
Provisional transliteration and translation: yuk’ib’ ta tzihi[l] [ka]kaw kelem(?) sajal u-yulul[il] "(it is) the drink-instrument for tzihil kakaw of Kelem(?) Sajal, (it is) his work."
The hieroglyphic text on Coe 1973: No. 64 can be transcribed as:
Provisional transliteration and translation: ujay yuk’ib’ ti tzihi[l] chakch’ok kelem(?) sajal "(it is) the clay cup (bowl), the drink-instrument for tzihi[l kakaw] of Chakch’ok Kelem(?) Sajal."
Related to this group of vessels is Kerr No. 7146, which depicts a conch blowing dwarf positioned streched out over a large water lily pad, placed above the skeletized seed from which emerges the roots and blossom of the water lily.

Kerr No. 7146
The diagonal text can be transcribed:
Provisional transliteration and translation: yuk’ib’ ti tzihi[l] [ka]kaw sajal u-yulul[il] b’a[h[kab’ "(it is) the drink-instrument for tzihi[l] kakaw of Sajal, (it is) the work of B’ahkab’."
Including the Dieseldorff vessel, there are thus four vessels that depict a similar male human bust within a water lily cartouche. The dedicatory texts on these vessels provide a reference to the vessel type (jay "clay cup [bowl]") and its function (uk’ib’ "drink-instrument"), the contents (ta yuta[l] tzi[hi]l [ka]kaw, ti tzihil [ka]kaw, etc.), and a title phrase Kelem(?) Sajal Kalomte’, Kelem(?) Sajal B’ahkab’, Kelem(?) Sajal, and Chakch’ok Kelem(?) Sajal. Provisionally these titles can be translated or paraphrased as: kelem "strong one; youth", sajal "tribute collector(?)" (Boot 2005: 385-386), kalomte’ "?", b’ahkab’ "First/Head/Top of the World", and chakch’ok "great next-in-line." Perhaps no personal name was recorded as the bust on one side and the titular phrases on the other were clear indicators of the identity of the possible owner of the vessel(s). The phrases Kelem(?) Sajal Kalomte’ (Dieseldorff Vessel) and Kelem(?) Sajal B’ahkab’ (Coe 1973: No. 59) now need to be explained. There are no other examples known of a Sajal who carries a title Kalomte’ or B’ahkab’. Probably these are abbreviated phrases comparable to Sajal uyulul[il] B’ahkab’ (Kerr No. 7146): the part uyulul[il] "(it is) the work of ..." was not written. A similar abbreviation also takes place in the vessel contents, as kakaw can be left out. If correctly deduced, the Sajal(s) mentioned on these vessels thus was (were) never a Kalomte’ or B’a[h]kab’. Supreme titles like these were only taken by the most paramount lords in both the southern and the northern Maya lowlands.
The Dieseldorff vessel may one day surface, either in Merida or in some private or public collection inside or outside of Mexico. I do have two photographs of this vessel in my archive (with no indication were the photograhs were taken), but only from the portrait side (and of less quality than the Diesseldorff image). When surfaced, my suggestion that the Dieseldorff vessel image and the Baker drawing provide images of two sides of the same vessel may be verified or falsified. Unfortunately, many ceramics that were in local Yucatecan collections may have migrated to private collections outside of Yucatan and Mexico. The reason for this process was the passing of a law by the state in the early 1930’s through which privately owned archaeological and manuscript collections were confiscated and would be transfered to the newly established Museo del Estado de Yucatan in Merida (since 1980 known as Museo Regional de Arqueología e Historia de Yucatán and based at the Palacio Cantón, Paseo de Montejo y Calle 43 [Centro], in Mérida). Instead of all privately owned archaeological objects being transfered to the museum, many collections went into hiding, and some of the objects (including manuscripts) in these collections moved to new owners inside and outside of Mexico. The passing of the above mentioned law and the fact that collections went into hiding probably prompted Dieseldorff to refer to the collection in Merida to which the vessel belonged simply as "privatsammlung", private collection, without the addition of a name.
Coe, Michael D.
1973 The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: The Grolier Club.
Danien, Elin C.
2006 Paintings of Maya Pottery: The Art and Career of M. Louise Baker. FAMSI report.
Dieseldorff, Erwin
1933 Kunst und Religion der Mayavölker 3. Hamburg: L. Friederichsen.
Kettunen, Harri
2005 Nasal Motifs in Maya Iconography. Helsinki: Helsinki University.
Proskouriakoff, Tatiana
1950 A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture. CIW Publication 593. Washington: CIW.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Maya News Updates 2006, No. 36: Chichen Itza's El Castillo as New World Wonder?
The first new Maya News Update is dedicated to the possibility that the qualification New World Wonder might be bestowed on the El Castillo building (aka. The Pyramid of K'uk'ulkan) in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. The voting process is still in progress (there are 301 days left) and the monuments selected can be found described at New 7 Wonders (URL: The El Castillo building, the voting process, and benefits resulting from a possible positive outcome are the subject of several reports in the Diario de Yucatan published this week. Below three reports from the Diario de Yucatan, all written in Spanish, can be found in full.
Oportunidad histórica para Chichén Itzá: Grandes beneficios si resulta electa una maravilla del mundo. Miles de personas en varios países han manifestado su interés en incluir al castillo de Chichén Itzá en la nueva lista de las siete maravillas del mundo que promueve una organización suiza, que ha llamado la atención de numerosos medios de comunicación internacionales. La consulta empezó en 2000 y terminará en julio del próximo año, con la proclamación de las siete nuevas maravillas en sustitución de la lista de las maravillas del mundo antiguo, que ya desaparecieron en su mayoría. En un balance parcial de los votos a favor del castillo de Chichén en diciembre de 2004, 7 New Wonders, la organización promotora de la consulta, reportó 1.100,000 votos por el monumento maya, un poco abajo de la Muralla China y del Coliseo de Roma. La inclusión de la pirámide en la lista de las nuevas maravillas podría hacer que aumente el número de visitantes a Chichén Itzá —que ascendía a 1.356,000 al año antes del huracán “Wilma”— y detonar el crecimiento turístico y hotelero de la zona. Sólo por las cuotas de entrada a las ruinas, los gobiernos estatal y federal recibieron $128 millones en 2005, y los prestadores de servicios otros $250 millones, sin contar gastos de transporte y alojamiento, según cálculos extraoficiales.— Hernán Casares Cámara
(Diario de Yucatan, 5 de septiembre de 2006, Página 14 & edicion electronica)

Crucial apoyo a Chichén Impulso en EE.UU. para que llegue a ser maravilla del mundo. El Castillo de Kukulcán en Chichén Itzá, que compite con otros lugares para integrar la lista de las 7 nuevas maravillas del mundo, recibirá importante apoyo del gobierno del Estado y de la Federación para lograr ese objetivo. El 18 de este mes, el presidente Vicente Fox Quesada, acompañado del gobernador Patricio Patrón Laviada, promoverá desde Nueva York una campaña internacional para impulsar su candidatura. En el lanzamiento mundial de Chichén participarán también el ballet de Ticopó “Siijil Ka'an”, que en maya significa Nacidos del Cielo, y el trío infantil Voces y Guitarras. La campaña a favor de la zona arqueológica maya se maneja con gran sigilo. El Castillo de Kukulcán podría aparecer en la nueva lista de las siete maravillas del mundo si recibe el número suficiente de votos en la encuesta que realiza una organización suiza por internet, desde hace seis años. La primera parte de la encuesta, que conduce la fundación New 7 Wonders, terminó el 31 de diciembre de 2005 con la preselección de 21 sitios, que recibieron el mayor número de votos de una lista inicial de 77 lugares. Algunos de esos lugares son la Acrópolis de Atenas, el Alhambra de Granada, El Cristo del Corcovado, el Coliseo de Roma, la Torre Eiffel, la Gran Muralla China, Machu Picchu en Perú, el Castillo de Neuschwanstein de Alemania, las Pirámides de Giza en Egipto, la estatua de la Libertad, el Taj Mahal y Timbuktú, en Mali.
(Diario de Yucatán, 8 de septiembre de 2006, Página 6 & edicion electronica)
Chichén en Nueva York: Presentación de la candidatura a maravilla del mundo. El presidente Vicente Fox Quesada hará en Nueva York la presentación oficial de Chichén Itzá como candidata a una de las nuevas maravillas del mundo, según informaron funcionarias de la Secretaría de Turismo y del Centro Cultural del Niño Yucateco. La gracia, el talento y el arte de dos grupos infantiles mayas respaldarán la historia de la zona arqueológica para generar la votación que le dé ese título al colosal sitio maya. Para ello, en esta ocasión los embajadores de la cultura mexicana serán el ballet de Ticopó “Siijil Ka'an”, que en maya significa Nacidos del Cielo, y el trío infantil Voces y Guitarras, dos productos culturales infantiles formados en el Cecuny. El lanzamiento de Chichén Itzá ante el mundo se prepara con sigilo, al grado que en Yucatán sólo se sabe que el presidente Vicente Fox y el gobernador Patricio Patrón Laviada encabezarán una ceremonia en el edificio Conde Nast, en Nueva York, el próximo lunes 18.Para esa ocasión especial los músicos infantiles y los bailarines de Ticopó, revela la directora del Cecuny, Dennise Gasque Castilla, se preparan con lo mejor de su arte y repertorio para cautivar al mundo y a los neoyorquinos. El gobierno del Estado organiza una interesante gira por Estados Unidos para los dos grupos infantiles, que incluye de nuevo presentaciones en varios escenarios de Nueva York y Chicago, ciudades estadounidenses que visitaron en octubre de 2005 los integrantes del ballet folclórico de Ticopó. Dennise Gasque y la secretaria de Turismo del Estado, Carolina Cárdenas Sosa, informaron en sendas entrevistas que en realidad el trío Voces y Guitarras y el ballet de Ticopó tendrán dos giras a Estados Unidos: una será del 17 al 20 de este mes en Nueva York para la presentación oficial de Chichén Itzá como candidata a la designación de maravilla del mundo, evento que encabezarán el presidente Vicente Fox y el gobernador Patricio Patrón.El programa tentativo de este primer viaje, según la directora del Cecuny, sería: el día 17 los niños de Ticopó participarían en un festival importante que organiza el consulado de México en Nueva York. Originalmente las autoridades diplomáticas mexicanas pretendían que los mestizos yucatecos representaran al país en el Festival Latinoamericano “Junta Hispana”, en el parque Flushing Meadows, que reuniría a más de 20,000 espectadores, pero al parecer no se concretó la gestión. El día 18 los bailarines mayas de Ticopó y el trío participarán en la ceremonia oficial del lanzamiento de la candidatura de Chichén Itzá como una de las siete maravillas del mundo. El día 19 los niños actuarán ante un grupo de hombres de negocios del sector turístico de Nueva York. Los artistas infantiles y la comitiva retornarán a Yucatán el día 20. Pero del 24 al 27 próximo el trío viajará a Chicago para amenizar reuniones de funcionarios de la Secretaría de Turismo con promotores turísticos de convenciones en la cual Yucatán buscará aumentar sus oportunidades en este segmento.— Joaquín Chan C.
(Diario de Yucatán, 8 de sptiembre de 2006, edicion electronica)
The El Castillo at Chichen Itza has been the focal point of several papers I have written in the past, two of which were presented at conferences in Leiden (2000, manuscript) and Hamburg (1998, published in 2000). It also features prominently in Chapter 3 of my 2005 dissertation entitled "Continuity and Change in Text and Image and Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico" (Research School CNWS, Leiden University, the Netherlands). While the whole process of voting for a certain building to be a New World Wonder is totally arbritary, it might be nice to see the El Castillo rank among the final 7. Why? During the vernal and autumnal equinoxes in March and September of each year the participation of the setting sun in the west is a pivotal element in an architectural hierophany in which on the otherwise dark side of the northwestern balustrade a descending serpent formed by triangular light segments becomes visible. When fully formed the amount of triangular light segments is 7.
While the official date of the coming autumnal equinox is September 23, 2007, the architectural hierophany at the El Castillo building is visible about two weeks before and after this date. The same is true for the March or vernal equinox date. To form the fully extended descending light and shadow serpent it takes about two hours in the late afternoon. The disappearance of the phenomenon takes less time.
The general principles of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes are explained well, among others, on a web site entitled "Autumnal Equinox -- from Eric Weisstein's World of Astronomy" (URL: