Back to top

Trees of Paradise and Pillars of the World

Trees of Paradise and Pillars of the World
The Serial Stela Cycle of "18-Rabbit-God K," King of Copan

Based on a thorough analysis of the imagery and inscriptions of seven stelae erected in the Great Plaza at Copan, Honduras, by the Classic Period ruler "18-Rabbit-God K," this ambitious study argues that stelae were erected not only to support a ruler's temporal claims to power but more importantly to express the fundamental connection in Maya worldview between rulership and the cosmology inherent in their vision of cyclical time.

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

January 2001
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
294 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 43 halftones, 112 line drawings, 6 maps, 1 graph, 3 tables |

Assemblies of rectangular stone pillars, or stelae, fill the plazas and courts of ancient Maya cities throughout the lowlands of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and western Honduras. Mute testimony to state rituals that linked the king's power to rule with the rhythms and renewal of time, the stelae document the ritual acts of rulers who sacrificed, danced, and experienced visionary ecstasy in connection with celebrations marking the end of major calendrical cycles. The kings' portraits are carved in relief on the main surfaces of the stones, deifying them as incarnations of the mythical trees of life.


Based on a thorough analysis of the imagery and inscriptions of seven stelae erected in the Great Plaza at Copan, Honduras, by the Classic Period ruler "18-Rabbit-God K," this ambitious study argues that stelae were erected not only to support a ruler's temporal claims to power but more importantly to express the fundamental connection in Maya worldview between rulership and the cosmology inherent in their vision of cyclical time. After an overview of the archaeology and history of Copan and the reign and monuments of "18-Rabbit-God K," Elizabeth Newsome interprets the iconography and inscriptions on the stelae, illustrating the way they fulfilled a coordinated vision of the king's ceremonial role in Copan's period-ending rites. She also links their imagery to key Maya concepts about the origin of the universe, expressed in the cosmologies and mythic lore of ancient and living Maya peoples.


  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Cosmic Origin Myths, Kingship, and the Rites of Renewal: An Introduction to the Stela Cult in the Classic Maya Lowlands
  • Chapter 1. 18-Rabbit's Kingdom: Archaeology and History at Copan
  • Chapter 2. The Reign and Monuments of 18-Rabbit-God K
  • Chapter 3. The Iconography of Vision Quest in 18-Rabbit's Stela Cycle
  • Chapter 4. A Spell Cast Over the Perimeter of Sacred Ground: The Inscriptions of 18-Rabbit's Stelae
  • Chapter 5. Trees of Paradise and Pillars of the World: An Iconological Interpretation of 18-Rabbit's Great Plaza Series
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Elizabeth A. Newsome is Assistant Professor of Precolumbian and Native American Art History at the University of California, San Diego.


Browse this book with Google Preview »

My research on the stela series dedicated by the Copan ruler known as 18-Rabbit-God K began when I was working toward my doctoral degree in Precolumbian art history at the University of Texas at Austin. Originally, I had defined a different set of goals for research than those I emphasize in this revision of my dissertation. My intention had been to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about state formation that was then the focus of Copan archaeology by writing an art-historical analysis of 18-Rabbit's stelae in relation to the centralization of power and the rise of statehood in the Copan Valley. However, as I became more closely involved in studying the stela cycles of 18-Rabbit and his predecessor, known as Smoke-Imix-God K, I felt myself drawn toward exploring a more fundamental question: What are stelae? What did these sculpted pillars of stone signify for the Maya who created them? As I immersed myself in studying the Classic Period stela cult and reading ethnographic literature that described colonial and modern Maya uses of freestanding directional shrines, I felt increasingly challenged to understand how the ancient Maya used and perceived stelae as sacred objects. I also became aware of how little we really comprehend about the connection the Maya conceived between the erection of stelae and the kinds of rituals they commemorate—blood sacrifice and vision quest, veneration of the ancestral dead, royal accessions, and the completion of calendrical cycles. In the peak years of a movement in the study of Maya art and archaeology driven by political and historical perspectives, when the major breakthroughs in iconography and hieroglyphic decipherment were the identification of historical figures and events, the esoteric nature of these questions seemed incompatible with the prevailing directions of research.

From the perspective of the political interpretations of the early 1990s, stelae were tools the elite used to promote and authenticate their claims to power. They accomplished this by manipulating ritual and religious symbols, such as those depicted in the imagery of stelae and other stone reliefs, to justify their status and right to domination. The monument itself was a vehicle for displaying iconography and inscriptions that asserted these claims in a propagandistic and somewhat legalistic mode, demonstrating that a successor's right to the throne was sanctioned by dynastic genealogy, divine approbation, and his ability to perform the diagnostic rites of office. Stelae were billboards or "political posters" that created a lasting record of these justifications, a public record in stone that validated power throughout the life of the king who dedicated the monument and supported the claims of his heirs to the throne.

The stela cycles at Copan, however, called these assumptions into question for me, and I began to redefine the goals of my study. These programs of stelae, or stela cycles, as I came to call them, chronicle a sequence of ritual actions performed over the course of a k'atun, the twenty-year cycle that the Maya regarded as the fundamental unit of historical time. The monument groupings embody the steps taken to accomplish a complex ritual process and, in terms of the spatial and temporal order they impose upon their environments, model the sacred effects the process was intended to create. The Copan stelae inspired me to define and explain aspects of their function with respect to these ritual actions, leading me to an explanation that belongs to a very different realm of meaning than the simple manipulation of propaganda to gain political advantage. The serial stelae at Copan confronted me with questions about how royal rituals in the Classic Period related to Maya conceptions of time, how stelae served as objects of ritual power, and what significance the Maya associated with setting up pillars of stone on cycle endings. The explanation of these factors also calls for a somewhat different look at Maya kingship and the meaning of much of the iconography that explicates royal power. These issues rose to the forefront of my research, for, in our present state of knowledge, no satisfactory answer accounts for the way the stela cult expressed the fundamental connection in Maya worldview between rulership and the cosmology inherent in their vision of cyclical time.

The value of defining stelae as elements of the Maya ceremonial world lies in their close association with the ideological underpinnings of power that gave cohesion to the society as a whole. They are the primary documents of ancient Maya kingship, for they chronicle the periodic rites of passage that generated our most widespread and consistent record of how the society identified the roles and powers of its leaders. Stelae provide us with much of our most tangible evidence about the lords who erected these monuments throughout their lifetimes, and they are our best resource for understanding the histories both of individual rulers and of their dynastic lines. The reliefs carved on stelae preserve portraits of rulers and the visual record of their rites; the monuments' inscriptions provide us with their names and titles, their actions and dates, and a wealth of other information. The stela cult is so closely associated with the political institutions at the heart of Classic Maya civilization that it is virtually synonymous with their rise, extent, and duration. The appearance of stelae that record royal accessions and cycle endings, displaying a characteristic iconography of kingship, is one of the primary markers of an institutional system that sets Lowland Maya civilization in the Classic Period (A.D. 197-909) apart from its Preclassic antecedents. Stela dedication was nearly universal at sites throughout the Southern Lowlands, from western Honduras throughout Guatemala, Belize, and as far west as the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. It reflects ceremonial practices definitive to the Classic Maya social, religious, and political systems that also set its civilization apart from Postclassic developments among the Maya in the Northern Lowlands of Yucatan (A.D. 909-1521). The extinction of the stela complex accompanies the collapse of kingdoms throughout the Southern Lowlands in the ninth and tenth centuries, marking the dissolution of a particular combination of religious ideology with political structure. Yet while the stela cult is the source of much of our most vital knowledge about this political and ceremonial world, it is also the source of many of our most perplexing mysteries about how authority was suffused with expressions of spiritual power. Stelae furnish an array of tantalizing glimpses into how kingship was empowered and sustained in Maya worldview, challenging us to understand its efficacy in the context of cosmology and ritual action.

The principal treatments that stelae have received in scholarly literature are either documentary or in the context of broader iconographic, inscriptional, or formal studies. Authors have focused on artistic or historical treatments of the images and texts stelae record, but not on developing theoretical perspectives that assess the role and significance of the monuments themselves. Discussions of stela imagery and design appear scattered through a wide variety of publications that deal with Maya sculpture or take thematic approaches to architecture and art. Interpretation of the monuments has also formed the basis for a growing literature on the reconstruction of dynastic and political histories, notably at Tikal, Dos Pilas, and Copan. Yet stelae have never been the subject of a systematic study to examine them as a distinct class of ceremonial monument. As a result, many of the questions that relate to their meaning and purpose have not been defined or targeted for research. This seems remarkable, since their association with calendrical cycles has long been known, and scholars have frequently remarked upon their highly standardized and specialized iconography. It is difficult to explain this omission except to observe that stelae are such integral features of our consciousness of Maya ceremonial landscapes that, to some degree, scholars have taken them for granted. We have focused on many other topics of Maya studies, overlooking the quite large gaps in our understanding of an expression of Maya elite culture that is central and close at hand.

To an extent, this omission is an artifact of the history of research, to which many factors have contributed. From the inception of study at Maya ruins, documentation by pioneering archaeologists and explorers established that stelae are the most visible features of Maya ceremonial environments. Stelae are less mysterious than the construction sequences of buildings, caches, and tombs and do not require the exacting attention and effort demanded by the excavation of the latter. Studies of writing and calendrics originated not with the inscriptions carved on stelae and other on-site monuments but with the contents of the painted codices from Yucatan that had found their way into European collections the Dresden, Paris, and Madrid (Tro-Cortesianus) manuscripts. Monument texts were primarily available to scholars as line drawings in publications such as Alfred Percival Maudslay's Archaeology from his five-volume Biologia Centrali-Americana series (1889-1902) and Sylvanus Morley's Inscriptions of Peten (1937-1938). Sadly, an early generation of scholars quickly drew conclusions about the form and content of Maya writing that prevented them from making aggressive efforts to decipher monumental inscriptions. If they had operated with a different set of expectations—admitting the possibilities that the Maya script could be read phonetically and that it might encode the history of a civilization—their efforts might have led them to focus more attention and curiosity on the tall stone monuments weathering in the Central American forests. Finally, when the field of Maya studies shifted toward iconographic and epigraphic research on historical content in Maya art and texts, scholars focused so intently on the political messages conveyed in these media that they rarely gave attention to understanding the monument as a meaningful whole.

For a pioneering generation of scholars like Morley and the ethnohistorian J. Eric Thompson, stelae exhibited a bewildering array of pictographic signs that recorded only the esoteric preoccupations of a priestly class. The inscriptions, they believed, concerned calculations of astronomy and calendrics, and recorded homages to the gods who ruled the celestial movements and the endless march of time. In describing the stelae in the Great Plaza of Tikal, Thompson wrote, "Those limestone shafts, carved or painted with the static portraits of gods and with their hieroglyphic texts always recording that overwhelming preoccupation of the Maya with the mystery of time, are milestones in the history of the city. Every five or ten years a new one rose to carry forward the story of conquests, not of neighbors, but of the secrets of time and the movements of celestial bodies" (I954: 9). Speculating on the purposes stelae served, he adds, "I could visualize the priest-astronomer, anxious to check his theories on the length of the solar year or the lunar month, threading his way from stela to stela to see what calculations his predecessors had recorded in the distant past" (I954: 9). Thompson and Morley fervently believed that the script could never be deciphered, and that even if it were, its contents would be found to record matters so arcane that no historical value would come from the decipherment. As the quote cited above indicates, they interpreted the images carved on the monurnents' principal surfaces as portraits of gods or their priestly impersonators, not of the political figures whose reigns and activities shaped the history of their civilization. In this climate of research, stelae slipped from scholars' consciousness as primary documents of Maya civilization to become curiosities of their ceremonial landscape, frozen in the illustrated pages of early documentary publications such as John Lloyd Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841), Maudslay's Archaeology, and the Peabody Museum memoirs authored by Teobert Maler.

These documentary works are remarkable as enduring testimonials to the importance of stelae as elements of Maya sacred landscapes. The stunning photographs produced by Maudslay and Maler, using large-format wetplate cameras, demonstrate the way a single monolith or groups of stone pillars activate their architectural surroundings, adding visual texture, emphasizing scale, dramatizing key points in the organization of sacred space. The stelae are integral features of the way courts, plazas, and temples were meant to be viewed, approached, and experienced by observers. In some cases, rulers set up their stelae as single markers at the base of a platform or temple stairway; more infrequently, stelae were raised within the sanctuary built at the temple's summit. Monuments were also grouped or aligned in rows before buildings or along the edges of plazas and courts. Many of the stelae that were sculpted in relief were also painted, either in a uniform shade of blood red or with red, blue, and green pigments that picked out the details of the figure and its regalia. Others, however, were never sculpted and form rows of plain stelae paired with uncarved stone altars, such as those aligned before the radial pyramids in the Twin Pyramid Complexes of Tikal. It is unclear whether these monuments were painted or otherwise adorned; in these cases, the stone pillar itself may have been a sufficiently powerful symbol to function independent of iconography and texts. Stelae are usually paired with stone altars of various shapes. Most altars are round or drum-shaped, although others are rectangular and may be adorned with relief carvings of bundlelike knots and ties. At Copan and its nearest neighbor, Quirigua, altars were elaborated into three-dimensional effigies of fantastic, zoomorphic beasts. The pairing of stelae with altars and their locations with respect to the approaches to temples and courts suggests that rites of sacrifice and devotional offerings may have been performed before the monuments, just as the modern Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas pray and make offerings before the wooden-cross shrines they venerate today. Their alignment with respect to buildings suggests that rows of stelae may have articulated points of worship along pilgrimage or processional routes.

The publication in 1841 of John L. Stephens's popular travel and adventure book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, introduced Europe and North America to some of the most spectacular stelae of the Maya region: the colossal monoliths of Copan and Quirigua. Stephens, who had been sent to Central America on a diplomatic mission by the administration of President Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), found the region in a state of civil war and soon learned that no government existed to receive his diplomatic charge. Luckily for the future of New World archaeology, Stephens decided to devote his time in Central America to exploring the ruins of ancient cities. He visited a number of sites in the Southern Lowlands, the heartland of Classic Maya civilization, and traveled to the arid Northern Lowlands of Yucatan, where the powerful dominions of Chichen Itza and Mayapan rose in the centuries following the collapse of the Maya centers in the south. Another stroke of good luck was Stephens's choice of a traveling companion, the English artist Frederick Catherwood. Catherwood, who had extensive prior experience making illustrations of monumental sculptures in Egypt, created a series of drawings and lithographic prints that illustrated Stephens's narrative, showing views of the ruins and their monuments. He worked carefully to document the Maya works, using the camera lucida to reproduce the details of their design. Catherwood's renderings of the stelae in the Great Plaza at Copan are astonishingly accurate, given the conditions under which he worked and the fact that his drawings were the first visual records of these monuments. The publication of Incidents of Travel brought the Maya ruins and their spectacular sculptures to the attention of both an enthusiastic public and the scientific community. Stephens's account and Catherwood's views of the ruins in Central America so aroused the curiosity of the English archaeologist Alfred Maudslay that he made plans to visit the region and investigate the sites for himself.

The study of Maya archaeology and monumental art benefited enormously from the sudden interest of Maudslay, for he was a tireless and exacting scientific researcher. In addition to carrying out the first series of scientific excavations at Copan, Quirigua, and a number of other Maya sites, Maudslay devoted particular attention to documenting the information preserved on stelae and other sculptural monuments. In a series of expeditions between the 1880s and early 1900s, Maudslay labored exhaustively to create photographs and papier-mache molds of the stone sculptures from the sites he visited. His photographs remain the single most complete and detailed visual resource for studying the sculptures' iconography and texts, showing them in a better state of preservation than they appear today. In addition, Maudslay hired a talented artist, Annie Hunter, to make accurate line drawings of the sculptures based on his photographs and casts. The Austrian scholar Teobert Maler began a program of research for the Peabody Museum at Harvard University that lasted from 1901 to 1911. Following Maudslay s lead, Maler also gathered visual data on the carved stone monuments and compiled an objective record of what he found. He penetrated areas of the Lowlands that Maudslay had been unable to explore, including the regions of the Usumacinta and Pasión Rivers. Although Maler did not publish drawings of iconography or texts, his publications in the Peabody Museum Memoirs include photographs that, like Maudslay's, are exceptionally crisp and detailed. Maler's work includes a thorough accounting of information regarding each stela or other stone sculpture he encountered, including its size, a description of its design and setting, and its condition and location when it was found. Maudslay, Maler, and Stephens and Catherwood were great recorders of Maya monumental art; they sought to provide detailed and thorough documentation and, in the absence of scholarly evidence, chose the objective presentation of data over the temptation to interpret what they found.

As the field of Maya studies moved into its second major phase of scholarship, it was dominated by the interpretations championed by members of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Maya research program. In this era, the middle years of the twentieth century, the record of Maya history, belief, and ceremonialism attested by monumental art, which is preserved most prominently on stelae, fell into a strange, paradoxical phase of neglect. The neglect was paradoxical in the sense that two major scholars affiliated with the Carnegie, Sylvanus Morley and J. Eric Thompson, produced extensive works on Maya art and inscriptions, yet failed to explore their potential for revealing information about Maya history or its ceremonial world. Thompson, truly one of the great ethnographers of the Maya, adopted a view of Classic civilization—which he defended combatively for most of his career—that denied any historical significance to the content of its art and inscriptions. Armed with an impressive grasp of Maya archaeology, ethnology, language, and religion, Thompson overwhelmed or converted most scholars of his generation to conformity with his views. According to Thompson, the Maya were a society of peaceful peasant farmers, governed by an enlightened caste of benevolent priests. Ruled by their astronomer-priests, the Maya were a deeply religious people concerned with the agricultural calendar, astronomy, and the worship of gods who presided over the phases of time. Early in his career, Thompson seems to have converted his colleague Morley to this view, so that Morley, who originally saw the images carved on stelae as representations of Maya lords, fell into line with Thompson in believing that they portrayed priests and gods.

Adopting Thompson's view of Maya inscriptions, Morley omitted even illustrating the greater portions of monument texts in his two massive studies The Inscriptions of Peten and The Inscriptions of Copan. He describes stelae, including their location and setting, but he analyzes only their calendrical data. He rarely included drawings or discussions of any glyphs other than those of the Initial Series, the opening section of a monumental inscription that provides its date in cycles elapsed since the beginning of the present world. Morley failed to record or interpret the subsequent, often quite extensive sections of the texts from stelae and altars that are now known to record dynastic rituals, the genealogy of rulers, wars, sacrifices, and supernatural events. His works, which might have composed a truly encyclopedic array of information about monument texts and the patterns of meaning they reveal, fall short of that goal and read only as an accounting of the seriation, location, and dates of sculptures at numerous sites.

Thompson's works attest to his tremendous gifts as an ethnologist of Maya culture and religion. Applied to the prehispanic past, his knowledge yielded some marvelous insights into Maya spirituality in his own time and still has the potential to do so today. Had he applied himself to the interpretation of iconography related to the representation of the Classic kings, the results might have been pathbreaking. But Thompson's approach did not permit acknowledging the existence of historical figures in art, and his visual analysis of stelae was resultingly vague, an expression of his view that their images embodied the enigma of the Maya's worship of the gods and time. He regarded the rigorous specialization of stelae iconography and their canons of formal design as evidence that their representations were impersonal, better suited to portraying gods than men. Interestingly, while scholars such as Paul Schellhas (1904) and Gunter Zimmerman (1956) had composed detailed iconographic studies of the gods illustrated in the surviving Maya codices, Thompson's writing seems to avoid applying this kind of scrutiny to the stelae he describes. He mentions few details of their iconography at all, and does not classify or compare features of their composition. Tatiana Proskouriakoff, a colleague of Thompson's on the staff of the Carnegie Institution, would undertake this kind of careful examination of stela iconography in her studies of monuments and texts at Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan. Her efforts mark the beginning of the modern era of Maya studies, making possible the decipherments and breakthroughs in our historical understanding of the ancient Maya that are ongoing today.

Proskouriakoff's landmark 1960 study developed from careful comparisons she made between hieroglyphic statements recorded in the inscriptions of groups of stelae at Piedras Negras and the iconography carved on these monuments. She successfully demonstrated that events recorded in their texts must mirror the ideas communicated in their visual images. Working with the dates and iconography of the monuments, she argued that groups of stelae associated with particular structures record events in the lives of individual rulers. Her work identified patterns of dates associated with particular hieroglyphs: an early date that corresponds to birth; an event that took place in adolescence, such as heir-designation; as well as verbs and dates associated with accession, marriage, and death. Proskouriakoff matched these dates and events to themes that she argued were portrayed in the iconography of particular sculptures. For example, she determined that an event recorded by the "toothache" glyph corresponds to the first stela of each series, which shows a ruler seated in a niche to which he has ascended by a ladder and scaffold. Proskouriakoff correctly identified the "toothache" event as accession, a concept that is also symbolized by the monument's principal image. The iconography of ascending to the niche, where the lord sits enthroned beneath a sky band decorated with symbols of the Sun, the Moon, and planets, functions as a visual metaphor for ascent to the throne. Proskouriakoff's arguments were so persuasive that even Thompson, upon reading her work, admitted, "Of course you are right" (quoted in Coe 1992: 176). Her historical approach and methodology of careful identification and comparison of elements in iconography and texts established the foundation for modern directions of research.

The approach that Proskouriakoff pioneered yielded abundant evidence that Maya art and inscriptions are the creations of a political elite composed of rulers in countless dynasties governing a multiplicity of rival states. Maya scholars since 1960 have explored the way rulers communicated their messages of power through public art. Approaches have ranged from reconstructing dynastic sequences and identifying individual rulers in the iconography and inscriptions of carved monuments to exploring the gestures, poses, iconography, and verbal glyphs that describe specific rites and events. These have been found to include not only accession but various types of blood sacrifices by the ruling elite and military attacks timed to particular hierophanies in the cycle of Venus. Texts and iconography reveal the parentage and the genealogy of kings, rites of heir designation, dynastic marriages, and alliances. Conflicts within and between polities have also emerged in recent hieroglyphic and iconographic studies. These findings have been linked together to create fragmentary mosaics of Maya history, necessarily incomplete and often conjectural but growing more secure through the continual progress of research.

For a time, the success of the historical/political approach and disillusionment with the religious preoccupations of the ahistorical school led to disenchantment among scholars with studies that emphasized certain esoteric aspects of Maya culture. From the 1960s to the middle of the 1980s, the priorities of research focused largely on defining the elements of the Maya political world. Researchers debated whether Maya polities should be classified as chiefdoms or states and whether emblem glyphs referred to dynasties, regions, or political domains. Art historians and epigraphers worked to recover the details of royal biographies and dynastic lines and to define the way Maya lords manipulated claims based on ancestry, ritual, and mythological sanction to legitimate their rule. Scholars went about these studies with the sense that they were bringing the ancient Maya out of a hazy realm dominated by longings for a lost, idealized world into the uncompromising light that history throws upon human motives and events. Themes that were reminiscent of the interpretations championed by Thompson and his contemporaries, many quite important to understanding Maya art and society, nearly vanished from scholarly discourse. Interest in ritual and lore associated with the calendar fell out of fashion and favor, while themes that related to agriculture, fertility, and subsistence-based aspects of religion met a similar fate. From the perspective that dominated the literature produced in these years, religion and ritual existed primarily as the mechanisms that justified the powers of the elite.

In the late 1980S, this trend began to reverse itself, partly through the impact of studies that revealed the strong shamanistic elements of kingship among the Maya and their predecessors of the Olmec and Pacific Slope civilizations. Both established scholars and members of the younger generation have contributed major breakthroughs to our understanding of the ancient Maya's world of belief, ritual practice, and spiritual power. With respect to the goals of this study, the most important developments emerged from the epigraphic investigations by David Stuart, Linda Schele, and Nikolai Grube at Copan. In 1986, Stuart produced a reading for the term for "stela" in the Classic Maya inscriptions that he has since abandoned: te-tun, or "tree-stone." Although Stuart has since rejected this reading in favor of lacam-tun, "large or great stone," as the word for "stela," his idea was important in that it raised the question of the symbolic value the Maya may have attached to these pillars of stone. His work also highlighted issues related to the ceremonial uses of stelae, for he drew upon comparisons with the directional shrines called acantuns that the Postclassic Maya erected in their rites of year renewal, described by Bishop Landa and illustrated in Codex Dresden. Stuart had suggested to me once that the stelae assembled in the Great Plaza might be conceived as a symbolic "forest" in stone (Stuart, pers. com. 1986). I believe that, despite the obsolescence of the te-tun reading, Stuart made a connection that is still fundamentally sound. The value of his idea lies in the relation stelae bear to fertility, directionality, and the renewal of time. His interpretations opened my mind to the possibilities for a whole new way of thinking about the stela complex as an expression of Maya ritual and worldview.

Moreover, the inscriptional studies at Copan produced new insights into the way the Maya viewed their stone monuments and ascribed to them special identities and powers. Findings by Stuart, Schele, and Grube included quite evocative terms for various types of sculptures (such as "sun-eyed throne stone" for an altar) and the proper names of numerous stelae. Many of these monument names include the appellatives of gods and are closely associated with mystical elements in their iconographic design.s The epigraphic studies at Copan revealed that stelae and other carved stone monuments had sacred identities for the Classic Maya and that these ideas were explicitly stated in their inscriptions and given graphic form in their iconographic design. The names of monuments suggested that the Maya attributed divine associations and spiritual presences to their freestanding sculptures that seemed to be realized or made manifest through the sculptor's transformation of the living stone. The evidence produced by the epigraphers at Copan contributed to a growing body of support for the understanding that stelae meant more to the Maya than particularly durable political posters; they were objects of power that the Maya regarded as vital actors in their spiritual world.

A new set of questions about the meaning and significance of the Maya stela complex lies just beyond the horizon, stemming from these advances and charting the theoretical directions of future research. To examine them will require a fuller understanding of the extent and complexity of the phenomenon that the stela cult represents, a problem that has not yet been sufficiently addressed. Systematic studies of stela iconography, inscriptions, and archaeological contexts will be required to provide an understanding of the variables that shaped the design and usage of these monuments across the geographic and temporal extent of Lowland Maya history. Equipped with the data necessary to develop such a perspective, a broader scope of theoretical problems can then be defined. Primary among these is the role these monuments and the ritual behaviors that surrounded them may have played in establishing the intellectual foundations for rulership in Maya society, including the unique historical consciousness that characterized its dynastic institutions. Much may be gained through formulating a new discourse that draws together such arthistorical explorations with trends in the study of political ritual (Tambiah 1977; Kertzer 1988; Bell 1992) and emerging models of Classic Maya political formation (Schele, Grube, and Martin 1998). Although that line of theoretical questioning cannot be explored within the scope of the present volume, it forms the immediate concern of my future research (The Classic Maya Stela Cult: A Study in the Ideology of Power, University of Texas Press, forthcoming).

In the present work, I have attempted to balance and reconcile two approaches, combining a political interpretation that addresses 18-Rabbit's motives and strategies in dedicating his Great Plaza monuments with an interpretation that is fundamentally concerned with their spiritual meaning. I view these as complementary perspectives that deal with interconnected realities, for political agendas and faith are rarely mutually exclusive factors in the creation of any great religious art. My approach differs from many that examine the use of sacred themes and symbols in dynastic art in that I deal less with how the sculptures promote such agendas as legitimating or exalting the king's reign than with how they embody concepts of spiritual process and effectiveness. It is undeniable that 18Rabbit's beautiful sculptures deify and glorify the status of the king: they do so in such eloquent terms as to merit the description of "visual poetry." But I think the monuments have more to tell us than how religious concepts and beautiful forms exalt an eighth-century Maya ruler. I believe their interpretation can tell us something about what stelae inherently are, what they signified in the ancient world of Maya belief and calendrical celebration. By approaching the interpretation of each monument as a comprehensive whole, and then relating them as a group and to the total structure of the ritual environment they occupy, I maintain that it is possible to draw conclusions that will bring us nearer to understanding some of the fundamental mysteries of Maya royal cults. Considering 18-Rabbit's monuments in this holistic perspective reveals glimpses into the deeper realities of the ancient Maya world of imagination, spiritual lore, and even the corporate experience of community rites of passage. Exploring the monuments in this way also offers an explanation of what stelae signif,v as expressions of Maya spiritual belief and practice. Far from being posters in stone set up merely to broadcast audacious claims to power, the 18-Rabbit sculptures are designed, sculpted, and organized in a way that suggests they were intended to produce a sacred effect upon the world.