Back to top

Lightning Warrior

Lightning Warrior
Maya Art and Kingship at Quirigua

Using epigraphic, iconographic, and stylistic analyses, this study explores the integrated political-religious meanings of Quirigua’s monumental sculptures during the eighth-century A.D.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

December 2003
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
277 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 72 b&w photos, 248 line drawings, 4 maps, 5 tables |

The ancient Maya city of Quirigua occupied a crossroads between Copan in the southeastern Maya highlands and the major centers of the Peten heartland. Though always a relatively small city, Quirigua stands out because of its public monuments, which were some of the greatest achievements of Classic Maya civilization. Impressive not only for their colossal size, high sculptural quality, and eloquent hieroglyphic texts, the sculptures of Quirigua are also one of the few complete, in situ series of Maya monuments anywhere, which makes them a crucial source of information about ancient Maya spirituality and political practice within a specific historical context.

Using epigraphic, iconographic, and stylistic analyses, this study explores the integrated political-religious meanings of Quirigua's monumental sculptures during the eighth-century A.D. reign of the city's most famous ruler, K'ak' Tiliw. In particular, Matthew Looper focuses on the role of stelae and other sculpture in representing the persona of the ruler not only as a political authority but also as a manifestation of various supernatural entities with whom he was associated through ritual performance. By tracing this sculptural program from its Early Classic beginnings through the reigns of K'ak' Tiliw and his successors, and also by linking it to practices at Copan, Looper offers important new insights into the politico-religious history of Quirigua and its ties to other Classic Maya centers, the role of kingship in Maya society, and the development of Maya art.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Life at the Crossroads: Quirigua before K'ak' Tiliw
  • 2. A Restive Vassal: The Early Reign of K'ak' Tiliw
  • 3. Rebellion and Revival: The First Stelae of K'ak' Tiliw
  • 4. Dreams of Power: Stelae F, D, and E
  • 5. Foundation of the Cosmic House: Stelae C and A and Zoomorph B
  • 6. In Honor of a Great Warrior: The Legacy of K'ak' Tiliw
  • Appendix A. Rulers of Quirigua
  • Appendix B. Historical Events Recorded in the Texts of Quirigua
  • Appendix C. Selected Historical Events from the Texts of Copan
  • Appendix D. Transcriptions and Translations of the Monumental Inscriptions Commissioned by K'ak' Tiliw
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Matthew G. Looper is Assistant Professor of Art History at California State University, Chico.


Quirigua in the Maya World


I was naturally anxious and expectant on this my first visit to a Central-American ruin, but it seemed as though my curiosity would be ill satisfied, for all I could see on arrival was what appeared to be three moss-grown stumps of dead trees covered over with a tangle of creepers and parasitic plants, around which the undergrowth had been cleared away for the space of a few feet. However, a closer inspection showed that these were no tree-stumps but undoubtedly stone monuments.... We soon pulled off the creepers, and with rough brushes, made by tying together the midribs of the leaflets of the corosa palm, we set to work to clear away the coating of moss.

As the curious outlines of the carved ornament gathered shape it began to dawn upon me how much more important were these monuments, upon which I had stumbled almost by chance, than any account I had heard of them had led me to expect. This day's work induced me to take a permanent interest in Central-American Archaeology, and a journey which was undertaken merely to escape the rigours of an English winter has been followed by seven expeditions from England for the purpose of further exploration and archaeological research.

Alfred P. Maudslay (1889-1902,vol.5:i), recalling his first days at Quirigua


When the first European and American explorers penetrated the dense jungles surrounding Quirigua more than 150 years ago, the ruins of this ancient Maya ceremonial center fired the Romantic imagination in search of "lost" civilizations. To the pioneer archaeologist of the ancient Maya, Alfred P. Maudslay, the extraordinary carved monuments at Quirigua were an important inspiration. Today we remain impressed by the grandeur and artistic excellence of Quirigua's sculptures, many of which are justifiably considered masterpieces of Maya art. Carved with stone tools, the sandstone monoliths are varied in form and proportion, from short and squat to extremely tall and slender. Many of the sculptures feature idealized portraits of kings dressed in lavish ceremonial regalia. The hieroglyphic texts that accompany these figures reveal that they were erected in honor of local rulers near the end of the Classic period of Maya civilization (A.D. 250-900).


Now thoroughly excavated and converted into an archaeological park, the monuments of Quirigua stand where they were originally erected, in low-lying plazas adjacent to a palace compound that served as the residence of its rulers about A.D. 450-850. (The names of the Quirigua kings are listed in Appendix A.) Unlike other centers, such as Tikal, Caracol, or Calakmul, Quirigua was never a large urban complex but rather served as the ceremonial and market center for a dispersed rural population, in which ethnic Maya were a minority. Quirigua was established on the north bank of the Motagua, a river originating in the highlands of western Guatemala near the ancient trading center of Chichicastenango. Winding its way between the Chuacús range, which lies to the north, and the great line of volcanoes which loom over the Pacific coast to the south, the river gradually drops into the Motagua valley, one of the prominent geological features of Central America (Fig. 1.1). Bordered by the Sierra de las Minas and Montañas del Mico to the north and the Sierra del Merendón and Sierra del Espíritu Santo on the south, the broad valley guides the river's meandering course through hot, moist bottomlands toward the northeast and the Gulf of Honduras. Today the Motagua valley is still the primary artery for travel between the western highlands of Guatemala and the Gulf of Honduras.


The geographical location of Quirigua was undoubtedly selected not only because of the access to the highlands but also because it marked a point where the river crossed the route between the city of Copan and the major centers of the Peten. Heading almost directly north from Copan, the mountain trails passed the Copan satellite Río Amarillo and then connected with the headwaters of the Jubuco and Morjá Rivers, which empty into the Motagua just southeast of Quirigua. Travelers to the Peten could then continue northward from Quirigua over a low pass which placed them on the banks of Lake Izabal. Prehispanic settlements have been documented along this route and at its terminus on Lake Izabal, at modern Mariscos (La Ruta Maya Conservation Foundation n.d.; Orozco et al. n.d.). From there, they could follow the tides of the lake via the Río Dulce to the Gulf of Honduras, which provided access to the numerous sites situated on the coastal rivers of southern Belize, such as Pusilha, Uxbenka, Lubaantun, and Nim Li Punit (Fig. P.1). Alternatively, disembarking at the northeastern end of the lake, they could begin overland treks into the southeastern Peten.


The location of Quirigua at a crossroads between the highlands, the southeastern Maya zone centered on Copan, and the Peten heartland suggests the importance of trade in its economy (Ashmore 1884; Sharer 1878, 1990; Sharer et al. 1983:48; Sheets 1983). Although excavations suggest that Quirigua was unusually poor in jade compared to other Maya centers, there is archaeological evidence for the city's trade in obsidian, derived primarily from the Ixtepeque source located near the upper Motagua. In addition, the highly fertile bottomlands of the valley no doubt supported agriculture, and there is some evidence for cacao as a local cash crop in the Classic period (Ashmore 1984). The vast forest resources of the lower Motagua valley also probably contributed significantly to the local economy. Despite all these advantages in location and natural resources, however, Quirigua grew slowly and even collapsed for a time, before achieving a period of growth in the eighth century A.D. At its height, Quirigua consisted of a settlement center of only about four square kilometers with a population of no more than two thousand persons (Ashmore 1980a:23, 1987:221). Even including the many outlying groups that surrounded the floodplain center in the eighth century, Quirigua was very small, especially compared to its neighbor, Copan, where fifteen to twenty thousand persons occupied a small mountain valley during the Late Classic period (Fash 2001; Webster, Sanders, and van Rossum 1992).


Maya Kingship


While Copan appears to have been settled far earlier than Quirigua and grew much larger, kings ruled both cities during the Classic period. (Lists of events at the two centers appear in Appendices B and C.) Like the kings of many other centers, the Late Classic rulers of Quirigua were considered both political and spiritual leaders. One of the royal roles emphasized in hieroglyphic texts and monumental art is that of a medium between the social and supernatural worlds. Rulers could serve as mediums for supernatural entities during ecstatic ritual (Freidel and Schele 1988a; Freidel, Schele, and Parker 1993; Schele and Freidel 1990). Conjured using ritual implements, represented in figural art, or embodied in sacred masks and costume, deities were manifested in diverse forms so that the kings could communicate with and direct them. Such acts of supernatural communication were closely connected with the sacrifice of blood and other precious substances. Astronomy constituted an important aspect of supernatural contact, for through this knowledge rulers were able to anticipate auspicious moments for activities such as warfare or political ceremonies. Astronomy, numerology, and other sacred knowledge became the basis for the chronology of official histories, as recorded in hieroglyphic codices, painted ceramics, and inscribed monuments. Such knowledge had to be publicly affirmed through performance, however. In this sense, Classic kingship emphasized power through personal charisma.


For about a millennium, beginning around A.D. 100, rulers of ancient Maya sites generally conceived of the transfer of power as dynastic or carried through lineage that was reckoned to a deified ancestor. Rulership was patrilineal and often determined by primogeniture, although occasionally it could pass through brothers. Following the death of the previous ruler, a lord underwent a series of complex accession rituals that associated the ruler with certain distinctive supernatural entities. Their culmination was a ritual death and rebirth, signaled by coronation with a white headband (sak hunal) made of bark paper, which might include jade ornaments that revealed their living spiritual essence. Additional personified headdresses were sometimes presented, and the ruler displayed a snake-footed deity (God K) scepter, called k'awil. As a sign of his new identity, the ruler also assumed a new name, usually derived from a (typically celestial) deity. Frequently, this name was identical to that of a prominent ancestor; and in a real sense the king became the present manifestation of that former personality.


An ancient Maya king was entitled to a certain political status, embodied in the emblem glyph title that he usually bore. The emblem glyph is a title naming a person a supreme ajaw of a certain polity, ideally, of equal status with other emblem glyph-bearing rulers. For example, the Quirigua emblem glyph (Fig. 1.2) consists of a dotted element reading k'uhul "divine," prefixed to a sign depicting a gourd, which was the ancient name for the site. The small sign above the gourd reads ajaw "lord." In general, the polity referenced by the emblem glyph signified a city and probably a certain amount of the surrounding land. In many cases, small sites were established at strategic locations within larger polities, such as El Cayo, built on an island near Piedras Negras. The rulers of some subordinate centers were merely called ajaw or had specialized titles such as sajal instead of the full emblem glyph. Many of these sublords acknowledged the dominance of their overlord in the texts they commissioned. In some rare instances, lords of subordinate centers used the same emblem glyph title as their overlords. An example is B'alam Ajaw of Tortuguero, who was a war leader under K'inich Janab' Pakal I of Palenque during the seventh century. Many of these political hierarchies were expressed through complex references to "overkingship" in hieroglyphic texts. Thus, some lords are stated to be yajaw "the ajaw of" another. Others conducted actions that are said to have taken place ukab'jiy (or uchab'jiy) "under the supervision of" an overlord. Political expansion, therefore, was not defined in terms of territorial acquisition per se but by subordination of rulers and their dynastic centers.


Of further importance in maintaining the hierarchy of different polities was the intense rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul, the largest urban settlements in the Classic Maya lowlands. Recent evidence suggests that the economic success and growth of many Classic-period polities were closely tied to a site's political relationship with these two great powers. Although the precise mechanism of these interactions is still being investigated, intersite marriages, elite visits, presentation of gifts, and military intervention have all been suggested as factors. Most of the larger Classic centers had political relationships with either Tikal or Calakmul that sometimes extended over a long period. Accordingly, intersite relationships often developed into enduring rivalries and alliances. Occasionally, however, sites profited through a change of alliance coupled with military victory. The most famous example of this strategy is probably Caracol: beginning as a client of Tikal, Caracol switched sides in A. D. 562 and, aided by Calakmul, witnessed the defeat of its former overlord (Grube 1994; Martin and Grube 2000). Although Tikal and Calakmul did attack each other and each other's allies directly, sometimes an ally of Tikal would attack an ally of Calakmul or vice versa. As will be seen, neither Quirigua nor Copan was isolated from the tension between Tikal and Calakmul. In fact, Quirigua's explosive growth in the eighth century may be explained by reference to these external political relationships, apparently affording its most famous ruler a new route to power through warfare and sacrifice rather than dynastic inheritance.


The focus of this book is the history of this ruler, who led Quirigua into its period of maximum political power during the eighth century, reigning from A. D. 725 to 785. According to the hieroglyphic inscriptions, his name was K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yo'at/Yo'pat, or K'ak' Tiliw for short (Fig. 1.3a). Like many elite names of the Classic period, this name derives from that of a deity, thereby evoking both his superhuman power and divine ancestry. The first part of the name includes the words for "fire" (k'ak') and tiliw, which is probably a derived form of the root til, meaning "burn," followed by chan "sky." The last element of this name, yo'at/yo'pat, alternates with a glyph that depicts a lightning deity who holds a lobed stone object, often in a quatrefoil shape (Fig. 1:3b). This object symbolizes the caves in which the Classic Maya considered many deities, especially the lightning spirits, to reside. It is also utilized by the Yo'at/Yo'pat lightning spirit to crack the carapace of the cosmic turtle, resulting in the rebirth of maize, as discussed below (Fig. 1.4). The approximate translation of this ruler's name as "fire-burning celestial lightning god" is truly awesome, representing a significant claim to divine identity.


By 725, when this ruler assumed the title of divine lord of Quirigua, many of the sites in the Maya lowlands were experiencing growth and concomitant political tensions. The neighboring site of Copan in particular was undergoing a population explosion that had begun to stress the valley's carrying capacity. Its ruler, Waxaklajun Ub'ah K'awil (formerly known to scholars as "18-Rabbit"), witnessed the expansion of Copan during the reign of his predecessor and probable father, Smoke Imix, who had reigned for most of the seventh century, from A.D. 628 to 695. Even so, the end came sooner than Waxaklajun Ub'ah K'awil could have anticipated, when he was captured and sacrificed under the auspices of K'ak' Tiliw in 738.


In this regard Copan was not alone, for this was a time of ruthless conflict and power struggles among elite centers, many of which witnessed the humiliation of defeat in war and the capture of their rulers. Calakmul, for example, suffered the loss of its ruler, Jaguar Paw, in 695. In 711 Palenque also lost its king, K'an Xul, to its enemy Tonina. The victors in these struggles often commissioned major art programs. Tikal, for instance, was enjoying a renaissance under Jasaw Chan K'awil; and master artists at Yaxchilan, under the auspices of Shield Jaguar, were working on Temple 23 and its great lintels featuring his wife, Lady Xok. The ruler of Naranjo, K'ak' Tiliw Chan Chaak, had just completed a series of successful raids in the Yaxha region and commissioned a number of exquisite stelae to commemorate himself and his redoubtable mother, Lady Six Sky. One of the most astonishing success stories of the times, however, was that of Dos Pilas, a renegade dynasty that split from Tikal in the mid-seventh century. Led by a series of aggressive rulers who had allied themselves with Calakmul, this polity expanded rapidly, conquering several sites in the region. Ruler 2 of Dos Pilas, who acceded in 698, oversaw the translation of his polity's new wealth and status into massive architectural programs, such as the El Duende group. Quirigua's political strategies bear comparison to those of Dos Pilas in some respects. It seems likely that those in power remained well informed concerning developments in polities both near and far and adjusted policy accordingly, waiting for the perfect moment to strike at those in their path.


What is particularly significant about the history of K'ak' Tiliw is the singular role of monumental texts and images in celebrating the ruler's exploits, by presenting these acts in certain supernatural contexts. During his long reign, Quirigua was embellished with eight known stelae, one large zoomorph, and two smaller zoomorphic sculptures. The monuments are of intrinsic significance to archaeology and art history for their massive scale, elaborate carving, and excellent state of preservation (Fig. 1.5). In view of their colossal size, their high sculptural quality, and the eloquent poetics of their hieroglyphic texts, the sculptures of Quirigua stand out as some of the greatest achievements of Classic Maya civilization. They are also nearly all in situ, which locks them into a precise spatial and temporal context. But even more important is the survival of the Quirigua monuments as a complete series between the dates of A.D. 746 and 810, spanning the reigns of at least three kings. Few Maya sites provide such a comprehensive record of artistic development over time. In spite of these qualities, previous studies have not adequately contextualized the art or politics of Quirigua within the greater Maya or Mesoamerican traditions. In Maya studies, Quirigua is usually considered of secondary importance, owing to its marginal location and relatively unassuming architecture. This study highlights the importance of the sculptures of Quirigua as a major source of information concerning ancient Maya spirituality and political theory that can be related to a specific historical context.


Sculptural Formats and Practices at Quirigua


Artistic traditions clearly express the political and spiritual ties between Quirigua and other Classic Maya centers. These practices drew indirectly upon traditions that had been developed by one of the most ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Olmec of the Gulf Coast of Mexico (de la Fuente 1973; Drucker 1952; Milbrath 1979). One of the major centers associated with this culture, La Venta, flourished between 1000 and 600 B.C. Sculptural technique at La Venta was varied, with execution in both high and low relief. Among the Olmec innovations seen at La Venta were some of Mesoamerica's first upright stone monoliths or stelae as well as rectangular thrones and volumetric sculptures in the forms of humans, colossal human heads, animals, and supernatural beings. The Olmec also sometimes associated altars with stelae, as at the highland site of Chalcatzingo (Grove 1984: 62-64). The stela form may have evolved from the Olmec celt or ceremonial axe, which was identified with maize (Porter 1996; Taube 1996). This symbolism is expressed in a set of celtiform stelae set up at the foot of La Venta Mound C (Fig. 1.6). These monuments depict supernatural beings wearing elaborate headdresses crowned with a trefoil maize icon. Together with the upright form of the stela, such botanical imagery has led some researchers to associate these monuments with concept of a "world tree," a symbolic axis of communication between levels of the universe (Freidel, Schele, and Parker 1993: 134-135 Reilly 1994). But the Olmec stela was not exclusively a supernatural effigy; it could also portray historical personages. The La Venta stelae sometimes show rulers in a narrative mode portraying ritual action (e.g., Stela 5), but these rulers can also be represented iconically, bearing the implements of office and/or placed in cosmological or supernatural settings (e.g., Stelae 1 and 2; Fig. 1.7).


As the Olmec culture at La Venta waned, numerous centers elsewhere in Mesoamerica preserved and elaborated these sculptural forms, including thrones or supports as well as stelae. Upright carved slabs appeared for the first time in the Maya lowlands in the Middle to Late Formative period, at sites such as Nakbe and El Mirador (Hansen 1989; Matheny 1987). Although these monuments were the direct ancestors of Classic stelae, also participating in the development of the stela were centers in Chiapas, the Guatemalan highlands, and the Pacific slope, particularly Izapa, Abaj Takalik, El Badl, and Kaminaljuyu, all of which thrived in the Late Formative period (300 B.C.-A.D. 25o). At these centers, the stela format was exploited even more than it had been among the Olmec. At most of these centers and especially at Izapa, stelae were placed at the base of mounds in a manner reminiscent of La Venta.


Although each of these major Late Formative centers featured stelae bearing varied iconography, one image is common to all four centers: the ruler shown in the ritual of conjuring spirit beings, who appear above him, as on Izapa Stela 4, Kaminaljuyu Stela 11, and El Baúl Stela 1 (Fig. 1.8). When they adopted the stela form in the second and third centuries, lowland Maya rulers preferred this type of scene, the antecedents of which can be traced to Middle Formative Olmec stelae such as La Venta Stela 2. Although iconographic and epigraphic similarities suggest that the early lowland Maya stela was more closely related iconographically and stylistically to the sculptures of El Baúl and Kaminaljuyu than to those of Izapa, the importance of Izapa in promulgating the stela form should not be discounted. As the stela spread throughout the Maya lowlands in the Early Classic period, it retained a number of its Late Formative features. It passed from kingdom to kingdom as a unified conception, replicating the low-relief style and primary function as an expression of the political and religious institution of kingship.


As a defining feature of Classic Maya civilization, the stela has been subjected to intensive study; and several interpretations have been put forth to explain the symbolism of this class of monuments. One of the most important of these is the suggestion that stelae may symbolize the "world tree." According to Mircea Eliade (1964:120,194, 269-274), this concept refers to a cosmic tree located at the center of the world that serves to connect the three cosmic realms of the heavens, earth, and underworld and is a source of life. Part of the original support for the association of stelae with the world tree was an erroneous decipherment of the glyph for "stela" as te' tun or "stone tree." We now know that the Maya termed these monuments lakam tun, possibly translated as "huge stone" or "banner stone." Nevertheless, there is ample support for identifying "world trees" both in the Maya ethnographic record and in ancient Maya art. In fact, most of K'ak' Tiliw's portraits show him wearing the "God-C" apron, which Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller (1986: 77) convincingly identify as a representation of the trunk and branches of a sacred tree (Fig. 1.9).


This costume element appears in diverse contexts (such as figurines and carved panels), however, and is not specific to stelae; thus it cannot be taken as proof that the stela itself symbolizes a tree, like the apron. There is in fact no costume element or other icon that specifically marks stelae as symbolic trees. As an alternative to this generic symbolic equation, it seems more productive to look for specific evidence on how the Maya conceived of individual monuments or programs and thereby gain a sense of the complex history of religious meanings conveyed by the monuments. In the context of such an analysis, it is not only the similarities but also the differences between monumental symbolisms that are significant.


While the general status of Classic Maya stelae as arboreal effigies is open to question, there is ample evidence to associate them (in addition to zoomorphs, altars, and other types of monuments) with rituals of cosmic renewal (see Christie 1995; Newsome 2001). Stone monuments were incorporated into elaborate cosmological rituals that established the shape and quality of both time and space. To the ancient as well as the contemporary Maya, time does not unfold in an entirely linear sequence but rather as a perpetual cycle of repeating events, initiated by cosmic reordering or Creation. Monuments and architectural programs reproduced aspects of this cosmic order through their conformation to sacred prototypes and their dedication according to the precise schedule dictated by a complex calendrical system.


The connection between monuments and cosmogenesis was articulated through the use of the Long Count calendar, a system for recording time that emerged during the Late Formative period and later spread through the southern Maya lowlands, appearing first at Tikal in A.D. 292. The Long Count calendar explicitly referenced Creation mythology, as it was used in hieroglyphic texts to count the number of days elapsed since the date of Creation, which was August 13, 3114 B.C., according to the Classic-period sources. In fact, Long Count records on stelae are featured information, usually occurring first in the text and sometimes even written larger than other glyphs.


As exemplified by the west text of Quirigua Stela C (Fig. 1.10), the Long Count begins with an oversized initial series introductory glyph (ISIG) which may read tzik hab' "count of years," into which is infixed a glyph or "patron" associated with the appropriate month in the 365-day hab' or "vague year." Following the ISIG are five units of time, each with a numerical coefficient. The highest unit, which scholars designate the b'aktun (144,000 days or about 400 solar years), is followed by the k'atun (7,200 days or about 20 years), then the tun (360 days), winal (20 days), and finally fin (single day). On Stela C west, the date is written with the numeral nine (a bar representing five units and four dots representing single units) in the b'aktun position. A single dot (framed by two space-filling curls) precedes the k'atun glyph, while glyphs for "zero" accompany each of the smaller temporal units. Combining the units with their coefficients, this date can be calculated in the following manner: [9 x 144,000] + [1 x 7200] + [0 x 360] + [0 x 20] + [0] days after the beginning of the current cycle. Traditionally, scholars represent the date on Stela C west in an abbreviated form, listing the coefficients only, in descending or der and separated by periods: In our calendar, this date corresponds to August 27, 455. On this date, Stela C records that an early king of Quirigua set up a stela. In fact, stelae were usually erected to commemorate such whole k'atun endings. Often, however, monuments were also dedicated on quarter-k'atuns, which Mayanists term hotuns. At Quirigua, for example, the known stelae of K'ak' Tiliw were set up on,,, and so on. Mayanists refer to such anniversaries of the Creation as "period endings" (see Thompson 1950:181).


Carved on the opposite (east) face of Quirigua Stela C is an inscription that clarifies the connection between the monument dedication and the events of Creation (Fig. 1.11). This text is one of the most detailed accounts of these events that survives from the Classic period, containing many unique elements. It begins with a Long Count record of the "zero" date of Creation, rendered as Following this are the corresponding positions in the tzolk'in or 260-day calendar, 4 Ajaw, and the hab', 8 Kumk'u. Together, these notations are referred to as the Calendar Round. Several events are associated with this date, including a list of sacred platforms or thrones set up by supernatural beings. The first of these objects is dedicated by two deities known as the "Paddlers," aged beings who in ceramic scenes are often shown paddling a canoe. This stone is set up at a place called nah ho' chap "First Five Sky" and is identified as a "jaguar platform/throne stone." The second stone dedication is performed by an unknown deity at a location that may read lakam kah "Large Town." The second stone is referred to as a "snake platform/throne stone." Finally, the third stone is bundled by Itzamnah, a prominent patron of rulership. The stone set by Itzamnah is stated to be a "water platform/throne stone," and its place of dedication is "??-Sky, First Three-Stone place." The entire process is overseen by an entity called "Six Sky ajaw," which David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker (1993: 73-74) identify as the "Maize God," but for which I offer a different interpretation (see Chapter 5). The narrative of Stela C is a metaphor for monument dedication by the ruler. His rituals reenact the ordering of the cosmos and compare him to the supernatural beings associated with each of the three stone platforms or thrones.


As discussed in subsequent chapters, specific details of this text were elaborated in order to emphasize the meaning of certain monumental art programs at Quirigua. In particular, boulder sculptures in the form of composite animals were conceived as effigies of these thrones or platforms of Creation (Fig. 1.12; Looper 1995b, 2002b). For example, Zoomorph G is named with a logograph (T150) which depicts a bundle of bones (Fig. 1.13a). Elsewhere in Maya art, the bone bundle is employed as a throne for supernatural beings (Fig. 1.13b) or a support for sacred objects (Fig. 1.13c). A polychrome vase shows a spirit seated on the T150 glyph, which is placed atop a round personified stone that is similar to the zoomorphs of Quirigua (Fig. 1.13d). There are unfortunately no archaeological data from Quirigua to prove exactly how these monuments were used in ceremony. What is clear is that the unusual elaboration of zoomorphic sculpture at Quirigua was related to a local interpretation of the lore of cosmogenesis.


It is noteworthy that while the Quirigua account is extremely detailed, parts of its content are consistent with texts from other Maya sites. For example, both the Tablet of the Cross at Palenque and Piedras Negras Altar 1 mention the events of Creation at the First Three-Stone place, which is named in the same manner as on Quirigua Stela C (Fig. 1.14a, b). The Creation text of the badly damaged Dos Pilas Panel 18 also mentions the First Three-Stone place (Fig. 1.14c). Usually, local elite traditions embroidered the narrative of cosmogenesis by incorporating dynastic ancestors as observers of the events. The key motif of the erection of sacred stones, however, was a widely accepted component of Classic-period lore. Its codification in the inscriptional record may have been historically linked to the spread of period-ending ceremonies involving stelae and other monuments.


The setting of primordial stones was both a principal structuring concept for space and time and a metaphor for social order. As promulgated by the Classic kings, the lore of Creation took on a decidedly elitist tone, implying that the paradigms established by the gods were the inheritance of rulers. As such, cosmogenesis became a royal prerogative that was periodically enacted through ceremonial performance. Through various techniques, rulers drew upon the aesthetic and symbolic significance of popular technologies, such as domestic architecture and agriculture, transforming them into statements of dynastic legitimacy and esoteric power. In the Classic period, the stela gained widespread popularity due to its suitability as a vehicle for political expression. A king's ritual action of stela erection replicated the actions of the creator gods. Further, the workings of the Maya calendar placed each period ending on a day with the same name as the king's political office, Ajaw. Thus, when a king commissioned a stela in his own image, his identity became conflated with the cycle of 360 days. In this way, the religious significance of the anniversary of Creation was appropriated. The stela allowed the king to be linked to the most fundamental definitions of space and time, thereby asserting his supernatural nature.


Beyond its inherent symbolic value, the stela had other ritual functions as a supernatural interface. Since their conception, stelae had been physically associated with mounds and pyramids. The universal Mesoamerican conception of mounds as effigy mountains and of mountains as the abode of spirits and ancestors suggests a function of stelae as portals to the supernatural world. As Evon Vogt (1970:14-16) notes, the function of the modern cross shrines of the Tzotzil Maya of Zinacantan as supernatural "doorways" may be close to that of Classic stelae. There are numerous parallels between the uses of such crosses and ancient stelae, including the practice of "dressing" the object. Postconquest Maya crosses are adorned with flowers and vegetation as well as actual clothing, not only to make the object ready for ritual but also in recognition of the nature of the cross as a living being (Bricker 1981:102-109; Vogt 1970: 14-16). Similar wrapping or binding ceremonies were central to the use of stelae in the Classic period, recorded prominently in the inscriptions (Stuart 1996). In one of the rare depictions of a Classic stela, the monument is shown wrapped with a cloth sash (Fig. 1.15). In the New Year's pages of the Postclassic Dresden Codex (pp. 26d-28d), upright wooden posts are also adorned with capes and sashes (Fig. 1.16). It has been argued that these posts are analogous to Classic stelae (Grube and Schele 1988; Schele and Stuart 1985). The dressing or wrapping of these posts suggests that they, and perhaps Classic stelae as well, were considered to have been vessels for living spirits.


The Dresden Codex images and Classic vase scene noted above also suggest that stelae served as loci for sacrifice. While the codical image shows an offering plate and incense burner placed before the wooden post, the vase depicts a flat stone in front of the stela, upon which is shown a sacrificed child. This image relates to the scenes of bound captives that adorn many actual altars, such as Tikal Altar 8 (Fig. 1.17). Here the carved image preserves the sacrificial offering. The Dresden Codex scenes show blood offerings before the post, a ritual implied by the form of actual altars such as that of Copan Stela 4, which has a shallow depression on its upper surface and drainage channels. In fact, many altars are carved in the image of the quatrefoil portal to the underworld, implying the specialized function of the altar as the point at which energies of sacrifice are magically transferred to the spiritual beings that wait behind or alight upon a stela, such as the jaguar shown on the vase in Figure 1.15.


Hieroglyphic texts also contain references to sacrifices performed upon or in front of stelae in the context of their dedication. The text of Quirigua Stela F (Fig. 1.18a) records the commonest of these events, a "scattering," which in this case is performed on the monument itself. Here, as elsewhere, the substance scattered is ch'ah "drops (of incense)" (Love 1987). A common Classic title, ch'ahom(a) (Fig. 1.18b), refers to the king as "one who offers drops (of incense)." The interpretation of ch'ah as "incense" is convincing, as a ch'ahom(a) glyph from Copan depicts a figure depositing a glyph which reads pom "copal incense" into a censer (Fig. 1.18c; W Fash, in Schele 1989c). Nevertheless, it is likely that blood and other precious substances were burned along with the incense, providing a rich feast for the spirits. The scattering ceremony may relate to planting practices of Maya farmers, in which liquid offerings are poured into the ground. In this sense, royal ritual structurally reproduced popular practices, establishing connections with common people but at the same time veiling rulers in an aura of awesome spiritual power.


Several stela scenes which include burning incensarios, such as Nim 1.i Punit Stela 15 (Fig. Lig), demonstrate that the burning of these offerings was essential to the proper ritual use of the stela. This image shows the scattering ritual in progress, in which standing figures cast drops toward an incense burner placed on the ground. The burning of offerings before a Classic stela strongly recalls the rituals carried out before adorned crosses of modern Zinacantan, in which the cross is readied for supernatural communication by the burning of incense and candles, the "souls" of which provide nourishment for the supernatural beings assembled behind the cruciform "doorway" (Vogt 1970: 14-16).


Even though some sculptors signed their works, there is little additional information about the profession from the Classic period (Montgomery 1995; Stuart 1989b, 1989c). An unprovenanced panel in the museum at Emiliano Zapata in Chiapas, Mexico, displays what appears at first glance to be the sole Classic-period image ofa carver at work (Fig. 1.20). He is shown seated with crossed legs, touching a zoomorphic carved stone with what appears to be a bone stylus. The text above the sculptor's hand contains the "lu-bat" compound which introduces sculptors' signatures, thus identifying the nature of the event depicted (Stuart 1989b, 1990).


The depiction of a bone stylus on this panel, however, suggests that this is no scene of actual carving, as bone would be suitable for carving only the softest stone. For the sophisticated relief sculpture of sites such as Copan and Quirigua, the sculptor would probably have begun by pecking out the rough form with rough tools of flint, followed by work with a wooden mallet and small chisels of varying sizes made of flint or quartz. Drills were employed as well, and much of the undercutting seen at Copan was probably begun by drilling at an angle to the surface of the block. Glyphic portions of monuments were first roughed out into blocks, as demonstrated by several examples of unfinished texts at Dos Pilas, and then finished as the rest of the monument (Schele and Miller 1986: 39). Rubbing with an abrasive stone such as sandstone would have provided the smooth finish desired for most sculptures and was probably a technique used to sculpt sandstone at Quirigua. The Madrid Codex shows gods carving deity heads or masks using the axe, awl, and drill; however, the heads being fashioned in these scenes are probably made of materials other than stone (Fig. 1.21). At Quirigua, K'ak' Tiliw's sculptors employed primarily sandstone, which--when freshly quarried and moistened--would likely have yielded fairly easily to stone tools and is amenable to either deep or shallow relief.


As a final step, most Maya monuments were probably painted. While evidence for polychrome painting exists at some sites such as Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, the Quirigua monuments preserve only traces of red pigment (for example, on Zoomorphs B and P). It is possible that the Quirigua sculptures were uniformly coated with red paint, a color symbolic of powers of birth, sacrifice, and cosmic renewal. There is no evidence for a naturalistic use of color at the site, nor for the use of color to differentiate sculptural details.


In general, our knowledge of the details of the sculpting process in the Classic period is limited. Nevertheless, Diego de Landa's account of the carving of deity images in wood among the sixteenth-century Yukatek suggests that the activity was accompanied by penitential rituals (Tozzer 1941: 159-161; see also Tate 1992: 30-31, 2001a, 2001b). He observed that when new images of gods were desired, the (male) artisans were shut inside a specially constructed hut and performed their work accompanied by periodic incense-burning and bloodletting. In sixteenth-century Tzotzil, the association between sculpting and bloodletting may be suggested by the term 'an, which means both "to carve" and "to let blood" (Laughlin 1988: 136). Even in the twentieth century, Ch'orti' Maya sculptors who make sacred crosses practice sexual abstinence, fasting, and work in isolation in the forest, in order to remain "in constant spiritual communication with God" (Girard 1995: 279-28o). Such a relationship between the roles of artist and penitent may also have been extant in the Classic period, appearing in the context of the lordly office of itz'at "artist, sage, wise man." The supernatural prototypes of the itz'at are the deity pair known as the Paddlers, who are called chan itz'at "sky artists," possibly in reference to their role as the primordial artists who painted the sky (Barbara MacLeod, cited in Schele 1992b: 257-259). The relationship between the Paddlers and bloodletting is clear from numerous images and texts (Stuart 1984). In addition, a noble bearing the itz'at title is shown in charge of the bloodletting ritual depicted on Dos Pilas Panel 19 (Houston 1993: Fig. 4-19)


Even though the letting of blood during sculpting mentioned by Landa has not been conclusively documented in the Classic period, the collectivity of the art production indicated in his report parallels Classic practices. Where the tradition of signing sculptures existed, larger objects such as stelae often bear the signatures of multiple artists, indicating that large commissions were likely collective undertakings. Piedras Negras Stela 12 alone has the signatures of eight different sculptors. Nevertheless, the execution was evidently carefully controlled, so that multiple artists' hands can rarely be securely identified on large monuments, including most of those at Quirigua.


Although a few sculptors' signatures include titles which suggest that they were also painters, Classic Maya elites seem to have placed a higher value on the arts of writing and painting than on sculpture. Not only are there many more images of scribes than of sculptors in Maya art, but writing and painting are often shown as being of divine origin. On a bone from Burial 116 at Tikal, an artist's hand holding the Classic calligraphy brush emerges from the maw to the underworld (Fig. 1.22). Even the supernatural patrons of artists, the Pawatuns, are never represented with the tools of sculpture--only the paint pot and brush of the scribe (see Fash 2001: Fig. 74). Such profound elevation and deification of the scribal arts may explain in part why large-scale Classic Maya sculpture designed for public display is so overwhelmingly graphic in style, as the planar nature of relief technique requires thinking in graphic terms. With the few exceptions of certain periods at Copan, Tonina, and perhaps very late Piedras Negras, Classic Maya sculptors conformed closely to the aesthetics of the graphic arts, usually treating monumental sculpture as little more than enriched paintings and often retaining the hairlike, fluid lines characteristic of the calligraphy brush and stylus. In contrast to these norms, sculptors at Copan often moved beyond the realm of the graphic, sometimes creating truly volumetric ("in-the-round") altars and thrones in the forms of animals and composite creatures.


At Quirigua the earliest stelae are clearly subordinate to architecture, being located on or adjacent to platforms in the typical Classic Maya manner. During the reign of K'ak' Tiliw, however, sculptures achieved an elevated status, becoming nearly independent objects. The vast open space of the Quirigua Great Plaza served as the setting for these monuments, which were arranged according to cosmological patterns (Fig. 1.23). Although it was based on a design that originated in Copan, K'ak' Tiliw's Great Plaza is so immense that the sense of surrounding architecture which is always present at Copan is greatly reduced at Quirigua. Among all Maya sites, it was Quirigua that came closest to severing the traditional association between stela and mound/pyramid, which had endured since the time of the Olmec. When standing near them, K'ak' Tiliw's stelae convey the sense of being completely self-supporting, demanding equal viewing from all four sides. Further enhancing the impact of these monuments is their huge size, which completely dwarfs the audience. Given that the original plaza floor was about a meter below its current level, the viewer's head originally would not have reached the level of the ruler's feet on some of the stelae. Such effects of scale and setting maximize the presence of the monuments and suggest the central importance of stone sculpture in the artistic program.


Several other features of K'ak' Tiliw's sculptures set them apart from general aesthetic trends in the Classic period, but these are shared to an extent with nearby Copan. Frequently evident at the two sites is a sense that artists were highly experimental, working within a milieu that favored technical virtuosity. At Copan the sculptors during the reigns of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fifteenth rulers explored the dramatic and dynamic effects achieved through deeply undercut and broken stone surfaces (Fig. 1.24). At Quirigua the best artists manipulated layered parallel planes in moderately low relief to define shapes and create shadows from the intense sunlight of the Great Plaza (Fig. 1.25). There is also an awareness at both sites of the variety in types of cuts and surface treatments possible in stone sculpture, a broad spectrum of which were used at one point or another in the history of Quirigua and Copan. Such sculptural diversity casts a considerable doubt on the concept of a unified "Quirigua style" or "Copan style," which appears frequently in the literature on Maya art. Although the preference for certain basic sculptural formats at each site may certainly be documented, careful formal comparisons over periods of twenty or even five years at either site reveal the relatively dynamic nature of sculptural traditions in the Maya Southeast. By the eighth century, when the monuments of K'ak' Tiliw were created, the history of forms and techniques utilized at the two nearby sites was rich indeed, immersing the sculptors in a complex artistic culture and resulting in spectacular sculptural achievements.


One purpose of this study is to explore the nature of the transformations within this extraordinary sculptural tradition. In particular, how may we reconstruct the factors which fostered the changes in the style and iconography of eighth-century sculptures at Quirigua during the reign of K'ak' Tiliw? Such a question has been asked of Quirigua sculpture previously, although it has never been fully explored. In nearly all discussions of Quirigua sculpture, the approach has been largely formal, with only recent speculation on the relationship of art to religious and political history. In the earliest of these studies, Herbert Spinden (1913: 175-177) attempted to support an erroneous theory that Quirigua was colonized following the abandonment of Copan by noting many similarities in iconography and representational mode between the two centers. In Spinden's (1913: 175) view, stylistic development proceeded automatically, disconnected from politics, the details of which were unknown at the time: "The course of development of the stelae and altars may be said to begin at Quirigua where it leaves off at Copan." Tatiana Proskouriakoff's (1950: 131) brief but more sensitive discussion of Quirigua sculpture likewise avoids political speculations, focusing exclusively on formal developments. The discovery of the historical identities of the rulers of Quirigua by David Kelley in 1962 had little effect on the study of their monuments, which was largely confined to the identification of the subjects of the portraits (Kubler 1969:15-18; Miller 1983). The only major study of iconography at Quirigua is Andrea Stone's (1983) unpublished dissertation on the zoomorphs, which related their imagery to concepts of cosmology and creation. Generally, scholars have avoided discussing the political dimensions of style and iconography. Clearly, a study of the nature proposed here necessitates the development of a theoretical framework for such art historical interpretations.


Art and Ritual


The problem of the relationship between Maya visual culture and politics is itself dependent on the definition of rulership in this society. In this study, two concepts are utilized to interpret the nature of royal power: ritual and persona. The first of these has received less attention in art history than in anthropology, despite its relevance to the field. While ritual is often understood within the context of "religious performance," to which the "secular ceremony" bears little resemblance, this distinction is not useful for the ancient Maya. A working definition of ritual as a "prescribed system of proceeding" (Blier 1996: 189) is useful, not only because it encompasses a variety of performances but because it recognizes the role of political intervention through the regulation of ritual (see also Rappaport 1999: 24). Far from being irrational, meaningless rote ceremony, as it is sometimes popularly conceptualized, ritual is a fundamental mode through which humans create "reality" and bring order to the world. As Suzanne Preston Blier (1996:189) states: "Rituals...offer through their formality and relative fixity a means of measuring, mastering, and making sense of the world at large."


Recent scholarship has sustained a vigorous debate concerning the social functions of ritual (Bell 1992). According to one school of thought, rituals are essentially a symbolic language through which cultural meanings may be grounded in individual experience (Turner 1967). As one of the proponents of this approach, Sherry Ortner (1978: 8), states, "As actors participate in or employ symbolic constructs, their attitudes and actions become oriented in the directions embodied in the form and content of the construction itself, the construct--the model if you will--makes it difficult for them to 'see' and respond to the situation in a different way."


The limitations of this approach are clear. For one thing, it is based on the ethnocentric assumption of a fundamental opposition between the individual and the collective, in which individual difference is a "problem" that is "solved" through ritual. Further, it overemphasizes the cognitive, propositional aspects of ritual. It does not deal with the fundamental nature of rituals as performances, in which nonpropositional, nonsemantic formal elements play a key role in forging social relations. In fact, numerous studies have explored these aspects of ritual. For example, Bruce Kapferer's (1979b) analysis of an exorcism rite in Sri Lanka demonstrated that changes in the relationships of ritual participants were effected through the manipulation of media, space, and audience/participant focus. Rather than merely providing a passive dramatic backdrop for a communicative act, performance may be understood as a medium in which social relations are transformed (see Geertz 1966: 7). An analysis of ritual must consider not only its semantic content, conveyed through verbal texts, but also the way in which the performance reveals experiential truths through bodily praxis.


While this conclusion contributes to an anthropological theory of ritual, it does not constitute a historical model. In order to understand the history of ritual, we must find ways to connect one performance to another, documenting continuities and changes as they are enacted by specific human agents. In Maya archaeology, significant steps in this direction have already been taken, and it is now argued that ancient Maya political history cannot be separated from ritual. The work of Linda Schele and David Freidel in particular has been dedicated to understanding how numerous aspects of ancient Maya political interaction were articulated within a framework of ritual performances. In two studies these authors argued that the origin of Classic-period culture was marked by an abrupt change in ritual (Freidel and Schele 1988a, 1988b). In their view, this took place in the Late Formative period across the Maya lowlands of the Peten and Belize, when monumental architectural structures bearing images of supernatural beings were built as theatrical stages by an emerging nobility. The conduct of rituals in this context provided a basis for these rulers' claims to supernatural ancestry. Eventually, the deity images of the facades were replaced by portraits of rulers, thereby fixing divine identities in a more permanent form.


These interpretations stand in dramatic contrast to previous reconstructions of ancient Maya culture, especially those promulgated by the eminent scholar J. Eric S. Thompson, who saw political (sometimes called "historical") interpretations in direct opposition to ritual (Thompson 195o: 63-65). In Freidel and Schele's view, public performance and charismatic ritual were crucial to the power of Maya rulers, through which they could sway the loyalties of people who viewed and participated in these ceremonies. Performances that displayed differences in regalia, spatial position, and access to sacred materials and objects maintained hierarchical distinction between nobility and commoners. According to Schele and Freidel, the rituals of the ancient Maya elite were carried out principally in order to effect cosmological changes. This definition of ancient Maya power acknowledges the transformational role of ritual and suggests that power is meaningful not in an abstract symbolic sense but to the extent that it is invoked ritually.


While power among the ancient Maya was exerted in the social world, its principal source was perceived as the normally invisible "otherworld," manifested in the form of various spirit forces which together composed the living cosmos. Perhaps the most potent of these was k'uh, roughly translated as "holiness," which was identified with royal blood. Another distinct spiritual force recognized by the Maya translates roughly as "white flower spirit." This essence was thought to reside in the breath but was also profoundly associated with procreation and particularly with umbilical cords. Interestingly, each of these concepts associates spiritual power with substances that emerge from the interior of the body. Accordingly, a fundamental ritual pattern involved the opening of the body so that its immanent forces could be manifested. For example, through the perforation of the body and drawing of royal blood, the power inherent in this substance was revealed and put to use. Likewise, the sacrifice of a captive's intestines magically manifested the powers of the umbilicus. A less violent context for the deployment of spiritual essences was the formal speech and song of the elites, which released the forces of breath and the particular powers of sex and procreation.


Ancient Maya power, then, could be accessed through ritual procedures that centered on the manipulation of the body. Such a focus may imply that Classic Maya political ritual derives from or was otherwise historically related to traditions of shamanistic curing and midwifery. In fact, glyphic texts that accompany such scenes of deity conjuration occasionally refer to the event as the "birth" of the deity. Another expression used in the context of bloodletting is the same as that which relates a child to its mother. Such metaphors may exemplify the elite appropriation of popular ceremonies that existed in Mesoamerica before the advent of kingship.


Rituals designed to release the power of the otherworld required a sophisticated means for channeling these tremendous forces. Such was the function of artifacts that we designate as "art," such as bloodletters, bowls for sacrifice, altars, ceramic burners, and stelae. Many of these objects served as implements or tools, including the stingray spines and obsidian lancets that were used to puncture the flesh. Ritual objects also contained and stored these energies, much like a battery. The dedication sequence of a stela, in which cloth or rope bindings fixed the energy of sacrifices in the monument, illustrates this well. The creation of a work of art may itself have been conceived as the infusion of matter with spiritual power, while ritual use enhanced that power. The intentional breakage or destruction of a work of art was also an essential part of the life history of the object, as its power was thereby released to be put to some other use. This belief, for example, probably lay behind the deposit of fragments of monuments in the foundations of stelae at Copan. Works of art were used to manipulate space and create a sacred landscape for ritual. Accordingly, three or four objects placed in a triangle or square constituted a magical diagram, creating a liminal space appropriate to ritual. In sum, Maya artworks may be conceptualized as technology of ritual transformation, which extended the potential of the human agent to manage sacred energies inherent in certain materials, idealized geometric forms, and chronological symmetries.



“This is a strange and powerful story, based on impeccable scholarship, and compellingly told. It is one of the few academic books on the Maya that I would recommend to everyone.”
New Scientist

“This is a significant contribution to the field. . . . Quirigua, although well-studied archaeologically, has not received this kind of single dedicated study of monuments. . . . This is not because the site and its art are unimportant; as this study amply demonstrates, the artwork of the site is of great significance within the gamut of Classic Maya art.”
Rosemary A. Joyce, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse