An Introduction to Aztec Hieroglyphic Writing

Marc Zender – Tulane University

The decipherment of Nahuatl hieroglyphic writing began in the nineteenth century with the pioneering work of Joseph Aubin (1849), and the system has received a great deal of attention from scholars during the past 150 years. Valuable sign catalogs have been generated (Barlow and MacAfee 1982; Berdan and Anawalt 1992; McGowan and Van Nice 1979), as have insightful phonetic decipherments (Nuttall 1888; Dibble 1940; Nicholson 1973), and a remarkably detailed reconstruction of Late Aztec political geography (Barlow 1949; Berdan et al. 1996). Yet it is only recently that scholarship has departed from a reliance on Colonial-era Roman glosses of Aztec hieroglyphs and begun a systematic analysis of the structure, functions, and orthographic conventions of the Aztec logosyllbary itself (Lacadena 2008). Although this new approach has had its detractors (Prem 2009; Whittaker 2009), it continues to be productive of new insights (Lacadena and Wichmann 2008; Zender 2008). We now have an emic critique of colonial glosses (Lacadena 2017) and the recent recognition of a class of semantic determinatives that bear comparison to various highly-abbreviated writing systems of the Old World, such as Mycenaean Linear B (Zender 2017). This intermediate-level workshop summaries recent work on this important indigenous Mesoamerican writing system.

Length – 5 hours

*This will take place on Thursday from 9:00am-12:00pm and then resume at 1:00pm and last until 3:00pm.


Writing in the Dark: The Inscriptions of Naj Tunich

Stanley Guenter – American Foreign Academic Research, Harri Kettunen – University of Helsinki, and Marc Zender  - Tulane University

The Late Classic hieroglyphic texts from Naj Tunich cave, in southeastern Peten, Guatemala, form the most extensive corpus of inscriptions relating to ancient utilization of caves in the Maya world. This workshop, open to all, is designed to examine these texts in light of the most recent studies of not only epigraphy and linguistics but also the insights of archaeology and the anthropology of modern Maya ritual cave use. The workshop will last three hours with a break.

* This will take place on Sunday from 9:00am-12:00pm.



Children for Cha’ak: Archaeological, Iconographic and Ethnohistoric Evidence for Ancient Maya Child Sacrifice

Jaime Awe – Northern Arizona University

During investigations of Actun Tunichil Muknal, my Western Belize Regional Cave Project recorded the remains of several children. Although some of these remains provided no visible evidence of trauma, we concluded that they represented those of sacrificial victims. While this interpretation has been questioned by some colleagues, I argue here that there is considerable archaeological, iconographic and ethnohistoric evidence that child sacrifice, particularly in association with rain ceremonies, was a tradition of considerable antiquity in Mesoamerica, and especially prevalent during the Terminal Classic period in the Maya lowlands.

Length – 1 hour


Chichen Itza’s Subterranean Cosmogram: Exploring Cenotes, Caves & Water

James Brady - Cal State L.A.

The Gran Aquífero Maya (GAM) project initiated an investigation at Chichen Itza designed to define the site around its aquatic and subterranean resources.  It has long been known that the principal pyramid, El Castillo, is bisected by a line drawn between the Sacred Cenote on the north and the Cenote Xtoloc on the south.  Additionally, De Anda’s previous work at Cenote Holtun, located 1.6 miles west of Chichen Itza, found that a line drawn between Holtun and Cenote Kanjuyum on the east passed through the center of El Castillo, so Chichen Itza defined itself around a cosmogram formed by its water features.  Additionally, Balankanche and other caves with water are being restudied as cenotes and these are all tied to the core of Chichen Itza by sacbeob indicating that they are part of the site proper. Finally, GAM is discovery a large number of man-made caves that are rewriting our ideas of the sacred landscape of the site.

Length - 1 hour

Demystifying the High Priest’s Grave: Investigations in the Cave/Cenote below the Osario

Allan B. Cobb - Cave Specialist

One of the most enigmatic publications in Maya cave archaeology has been Edward H. Thompson investigation of the High Priest’s Grave at Chichen Itza in 1896.  Thompson discovered a masonry shaft running down the center of the pyramid that gave access to a cave/cenote beneath the structure.  This was the first account of a cave with a pyramid built over it and Thompson suggested that the cave contained seven chambers, hinting at the possibility of a Chicomoztoc. J. Eric Thompson in editing and publishing the report in 1938 notes that there are a number of discrepancies in this early account and over the years, archaeologists have grappled with the meaning of the discovery.  

The Gran Aquífero Maya project undertook a restudy of the pyramid, shaft, and cave.  The stone floor at the base of the shaft was found to be the top of a small platform that predated the construction of the pyramid. Evidence suggests that the cave had been subjected to a termination ritual and no Chicomoztoc configuration was found.

Length - (30-45 minutes)


Conquering and Integrating the Wilderness: Ancient Maya Negotiations with the Natural Environment

Jeremy Coltman – UC Riverside

It was over 75 years ago that Carl Sauer gave the first formal definition of landscape, which took both nature and culture into account. Landscapes are more than mere political organization but also serve as political order. For instance, rituals of foundation brought order to wild and untamed environs with the surrounding mountains, caves, and lakes replicating the primordial landscape and providing markers for settlement. But what of the ruler’s relationship with the untamed and dangerous wilderness? Was he capable of subduing it and integrating it into the constituted political whole? This talk will focus on the relationships between rulers and the natural environment and how the ordered landscape did, and did not, integrate the surrounding wilderness.

Length - 30 minutes

Revisiting the Revisited Caverns of Copán b/w Dancing in the Shadows: MMSS in the Greater Mundo Maya Context

Cameron S. Griffith - Texas Tech University

In 1896-1897 George Byron Gordon investigated a series of caves in the Sesesmil River Valley of Honduras, north of the city center of Copán.  Gordon's expedition is considered to be the first archaeological exploration of caves in the region, yielding numerous artifacts as well as evidence for a plethora of different mortuary practices.  Since Gordon’s day there have been at least five different official scientific investigations of caves in the vicinity of Copán, in addition to numerous unofficial visits/explorations, including looting activity and resource procurement.  

In July of 2018, as part of the Proyecto Arqueológico Río Amarillo, Copán, a handful of caves around Copán were revisited yet again.  This reconnaissance and reassessment endeavor yielded additional information about the use of subterranean space by ancient Copáneros, and shed new light on the artistic phenomenon known as Monumental Modified Speleothem Sculpture (MMSS).  In this presentation I present some of these recent findings, which enhance our burgeoning knowledge base for this relatively obscure ancient Maya art genre.

Length – 30 minutes

Defining Days and Clarifying Nights: A Review of the Nature of the Classic Maya Calendar and the Correlation Question

Stanley Guenter  - American Foreign Academic Research

Many of the Calendar Round dates in the inscriptions from Naj Tunich cave have non-Classic forms, with haab coefficients a day earlier or later than in the standard calendar of rhe Classic period. These have been increasingly interpreted as evidence of regional calendars or of nighttime events, following a suggestion by Peter Mathews forty years ago that the tzolkin and haab calendars began at different parts of the day. Most recently these suggestions formed the basis for a new correlation of the ancient Maya calendar with our own Western Gregorian calendar, one that would require there having been a three day calendar reformation in the Maya area between the Classic era and the arrival of the Spanish. This presentation will review these hypotheses in light of the evidence of modern and ancient Maya civilization as well as cross-cultural comparisons and patterns in calendars and their reformation in world history.

Length – 1 hour

Sweatbaths and Caves in Mesoamerican Thought

Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire - Tulane University and Harri Kettunen - University of Helsinki

Sweatbaths, often referred to as temazcals, are one of the most pervasive architectural institutions in Mesoamerica. They are found in both hot and cold climates and across cultural frontiers, from the highlands of Mexico to the southern Maya lowlands. We begin this presentation with a worldwide overview of the history of sweatbaths, including cross-cultural parallels, to then take a closer look at Mesoamerican temazcals. We explore how these small, yet important buildings, have played central roles in Mesoamerican communities for the past millennia. To provide a full spectrum of these emblematic buildings we review evidence from archaeology, ethnohistory, ethnography, epigraphy, and linguistics. In particular, we explore parallels between Mesoamerican perceptions of sweatbaths and caves, both spiritually and architecturally. We also discuss the distinct roles that sweatbaths played and still play in Mesoamerica, from daily hygiene, ceremonial birthplaces, and healing spaces to economic facilities for the production of dye.

Length - 1 hour

And The “Eh’s” Have It: The Canadian Legacy in Belizean Cave Archaeology

Shawn G. Morton - Northern Arizona University

For the ancient Maya, the cave context was both a portal to the halls of death and the source of life itself. It was a place of deprivation and sacrifice, and the path to unimaginable wealth. It was the exclusive domain of kings, and the common temple of peasants. As a result, caves are complex contexts of study, demanding in both body and mind. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the study of this context has attracted some of our discipline’s greatest talents. While the names of Mercer, Thompson, Brady, and others provide plenty of biographical fodder for us to dwell on, in this talk, I intend on getting patriotic. I want to focus on my countrymen. Canadians and Canadian institutions have long played a prominent role in the archaeology of Belize, and particularly in the cave context. Beginning with research conducted by the Royal Ontario Museum in the 1960s which produced such seminal works as  Excavations at Eduardo Quiroz Cave and The Prehistory of Actun Balam — and developing into one of the first truly regional studies of this context in the Maya area under the Western Belize Regional Cave Project, the Canadian legacy in the archaeology of the deep-cave environment continues to be felt, and to inspire spin-off projects and new research.

Length - 45 minutes

Conservative Beliefs, Dynamic Practices: Regional Variations in Ancient Maya Cave Use in Belize

Holley Moyes - University of California, Merced

We tend to think of ancient Maya religion as somewhat monolithic due to commonalities found in cosmologies and belief systems throughout Mesoamerica. However, I will argue here, that the archaeological record demonstrates variation in the way that ritual was practiced over time and space.  Because ancient Maya cave use is ritual in nature, it provides us a rare opportunity to study the material remains of these rites so that it is possible to observe differences in practice over wide areas, to identify local variants, and to compare regional practices. Beginning in 2011, the the Belize Cave Research Project investigated 82 sites in western, central, and northern Belize, of which 26 have been mapped, photographed, excavated, and surface finds recorded.  These systematically recorded data provide ample information for identifying local practices and regional variations. In this paper I focus on caves surrounding the site of Las Cuevas located in the Chiquibul Forest Re- serve in western Belize. I discuss  Late Classic (AD 700-950) rites in this area, compare them  to other regions, and discuss their implications.


Temples in the Twilight Zone: Maya Cave Architecture of Coastal Quintana Roo

Dominique Rissolo - University of California, San Diego

Unique to the caves of the central coast of Quintana Roo are small shrines that closely resemble the region’s Late Postclassic temples. The presence of shrines and altars in caves serves as compelling and unambiguous evidence for ancient Maya religious practice in these subterranean spaces. Detailed study of masonry architecture in the caves of Quintana Roo reveals a strong stylistic and likely functional correspondence between these structures and their terrestrial counterparts at Postclassic sites such as Xamanha, Xcaret, Xelha, Tancah, and Tulum. The Proyecto Arquitectura Subterranea de Quintana Roo (coordinated by the Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative at UC San Diego) is conducting a survey and program of digital documentation of cave shrines in the region. Comparative analyses across terrestrial and subterranean environments provide insights into the form, function, and meaning Postclassic cave architecture in the northeastern Maya lowlands.

Representations of Sacred Portals in Early Colonial Pictorial Manuscripts of Central Mexico
Jennifer Saracino - Flagler College
In pre-Hispanic Central Mexican pictorial tradition, caves not only localized geographic features of the natural landscape, but they could also signify sacred sites of ancestral emergence or portals to other realms. This pictorial tradition continued into the early colonial period, imbuing documents with indigenous perceptions of place and ensuring the continuity of these pre-Hispanic associations to the sacred landscape. This talk begins with a general overview of the representation of caves as sacred sites in indigenous pictorial documents made after Spanish Contact. The second half of the talk then focuses on representations of sacred sites in the depicted landscape of the Mapa Uppsala, the earliest known map of Mexico City painted by indigenous artists after Spanish Conquest. In this presentation, the author discusses findings from a recent research trip that provide evidence of pre-Hispanic associations with features of the natural landscape in this cartographic representation made for the Spanish king Charles V.
Length - 30 minutes

War in the Land of True Peace:  The Fight for Maya Sacred Places

Brent K.S. Woodfill - Winthrop University

For the ancient and modern Maya, the landscape is populated by powerful individuals who are manifested in geographic idiosyncrasies like caves, mountains, springs, and abandoned cities. They own the surrounding land, and in order to plant, harvest, build, and travel through their territories, the Maya regularly visit them and perform rituals asking for permission. As a result, these places have been used as points of domination and resistance throughout the past several millennia and into the twenty-first century.

The narrow strip at the base of the Guatemalan highlands has always been one of the most important regions of the Maya World, both for its strategic location and for its exceptional resource base—fertile soil, petroleum, and the only non-coastal salt source in the Maya lowlands. Multiple foreign groups have attempted to incorporate the region into expanding hegemonies and empires, each of them has used the Maya need for access to these places as a tool of domination.  Inevitably, however, the local Maya push back to reclaim the sacred places for their own.

Length - (45-60 min)

What Bones Tell Us and Why We Don’t Always Agree About What They Are Saying

Gabriel Wrobel – Michigan State University

Bioarchaeologists study the lives and deaths of ancient individuals uniquely through direct observation of those individuals. Bones and teeth contain data allowing us to access a wide range of information about individuals’ lived experiences, as well as the circumstances surrounding their deaths and subsequent treatment of their bodies. Yet, these data rarely speak for themselves, and instead we rely on context-based interpretations to tell what the data actually mean. In this presentation, I will focus on bioarchaeological studies of bones from caves in the Maya area, discussing the types of data that have been revealed and also how and why researchers have often disagreed in their interpretations of them. Rather than providing definitive answers, we will shine a light on the process of scientific inquiry.

Length – 1 hour

Creatures of Darkness: Bats in Classic Maya Art and Writing

Marc Zender – Tulane University

Abstract not submitted

Length – 1 hour



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