A Computation of Time by Erecting (Tz’ap & Wa’) and Seating (Chum) Stones (Tuno’b’)

Eduard Seler[1], Charles P. Bowditch and Sylvanus G. Morley detected at the beginning of the 20th century that the classic Maya dedicated stelae and other stone monuments at the end of a winikhaab (k’atun) and at shorter time periods (Bowditch 1910: 310-318; Morley 1920: 565-586). Ritual practices of time consisted in many cities of an erection of one or several stone monuments.6[2] But the cities Palenque, Chinikiha, Pomona with neighbouring sites in the western parts of the southern lowland and the Puuc re- gion—which have many inscriptions with tun (stone) counts—did not have the tradition of raising stelae or producing stone discs (Stuart 1996: 149-151; Stuart 2000: 1).[3] This fact reveals that they did not adhere to the cosmogonic philosophy of Quirigua.

Scholars use the term haab for the 365-day solar year and the word tun for the 360-day civil or vague year of the Long Count calendar (Thompson

  • 1978: 190-191). In the classic inscriptions of the southern lowlands the word tun was applied as a designation for periods of 5 (ho’ tun), 10 (lajun tun), or 15 (ho’lajun tun) haab within the winikhaab-unit (Long 1925: 575-580; Stuart 1996: 149-150, note 1). The classic Maya erected stones (tun) to symbolise the intervals of time in the Long Count calendar rituals. The record-keepers referred to numbered stones representing periods of 360 days (e.g. one tun). A tradition of erecting stone monuments as ritual practice of time is attested at the time of the Spanish arrival (Roys 1933: 142-143; Landa 1941: 38). There is reported a ceremonial use of stones in postclassic Yucatec calendar ceremonies. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel outlines the founding of stones in certain towns at the end of the k’atun (Stuart 1996: 150). For instance, it recounts that on “12 Ahau. The stone was taken at Otzmal; 10 Ahau. The stone was taken at Zizal; 8 Ahau. The stone was taken at Kancaba etc. ” (Roys 1933: 142-143). Both The Cronica de Chicxulub and Diego de Collogudo in his Historia de Yucatan (cited in Tozzer 1941: 38) describe the placing of k’atun stones (Stuart 1996: 150). Since also “Native historical chronicles from colonial Yucatan, such as The Book of Chilam Balam, routinely make use of tun in temporal statements such as ‘in the first tun ...’, or ‘in the twelfth tun ...’,” (Stuart 1996: 149) Stuart asserts that tun is equivalent to a station of 360 days within a k’atun (winikhaab) period, and that the word tun refers to stones employed to compute a time period: “With the passing of every 360 days, a tun is added to this reckoning, so that the glyphs “13 Tun” or “15 Tun” specify specific stations within a k’atun period” (Stuart 1996: 150). Stones (tuno’b’) could hence symbolise and mark a period in the time keeping. This is expressed in a range of formulas of the classic inscriptions.[4] [5] Moreover, Stuart has recently identified an interesting expression in the inscription on the West Panel of TXIX, Palenque. The date [A1-B5] as indicated by the Calendar Round, 7 Ajaw and 8 K’anasiiy, and the expression huk kuP2 tun [A2] or “it is seven stones”, suggests the date 7 haab. Each haab is then symbolised by a stone (Stuart 2005: 91-92). In addition, the introduction of the remarkable inscription on the Tablet of the Slaves, Palenque (A1-A3) records a number of winikhaab-stones being ritually seated byJanaab’ Pakal [I], Kan B’alam [II] and Kan Joy Chitam [II] during their respectively reign:
  • 5 Lamat 1 Mol ( Janaab’ Pakal [I] was (inaugurated as ajaw). It was his third of twenty seating of stones. It was one of twenty seating of stones of Kan B’alam [II]. It was one of twenty seating of stones of Kan Joy Chitam [II].

Each stone symbolised one winikhaab out of twenty winikhaabs. At the end of the inscription it is stated that a stone will be seated on the future “period-ending date” of 4 Ajaw 13 Yaxsihom. Stones were accordingly symbolically associated with time keeping of the linear Long Count calendar.

We saw above that stone and time periods had names after Ajaw dates of the 260-day calendar: “X Ajaw Tun” (Stuart 1996: 149-151). A custom of marking time of the 260-day calendar by erecting stones can be found among the contemporary Aguacatecs of northwest Guatemala.[6] The Agua- catecos plant a long slender stone in the earth (qa-k’ub-il, “our stone”) at the birth of a child (personal communication from Harry McArthur to Helen Neueswander). At every 260-day anniversary of the birth, the parents go to the where the stone was erected and burn incense to petition the earth for the protection of the child. The Aguacatec stones represent the people towards the deities where they received ritual meals on anniversaries (Neueswander 1981: 127). Stones were also employed for computation in calendar calculations and divinations, since: “Achi ahlah “to count” is possible derived from ah “of, from” and lah “flat stones” (Neueswander 1981: 128). Moreover, Arvid Westfall has observed a Kanjobal worship centre in Coya, San Miguel Acatan, Huehuetenango in Guatemala where there was constructed a circle of stones. Each stone represented a day deity. The religious specialist recited the day names as he went around the unmarked stones in a circle (Neueswander 1981: 128). This suggests the importance of the 260-day calendar (a crucial subject matter I will return to elaborate) which was integrated in the Long Count computations among the classic Maya.

K’altun: A Symbolic Binding of Time

K’altun, “stone-binding” or “stone-wrapping”was a regular ritual in the classic period (Stuart 1996: 155). But what symbolic significance held k’altun

(“stone-binding” or “stone-wrapping”) in the ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar?

The k’altun-ceremony is connected to the ritual recording of k’atun (winikhaab)-endings. The scene on a carved peccary skull from Tomb 1, Copan—where the inscription outlines the stone-binding (k’altun) ritual on—may depict a k’altun-ritual. The scene portrays two individuals who have wrapped or fastened a cloth around a stone monument or stela. Stuart concludes that this illustrates a ritual “of wrapping or bundling sacred objects with a cloth” (Stuart 1996: 156).[7] [8] In Tikal stelae were erected with an associated stone disc in the so-called “twin pyramid groups” where the stelae depict the current ruling ajaw performing a ritual “scattering”. The inscription on the stelae contains the k’altun sign associated with a winikhaab-ending (Stuart 1996: 156). But not only stelae were associated with a k’altun ritual. Stone discs at Copan and Yaxchilan associated with stelae with knotted bands give the impression of “bound’ stones”. The circular stone disc of Stela I, Copan for instance has carved images of knotted bands. A k’altun event is expressed in the inscription. Knotted, wrapped stone discs are also illustrated in scenes on stelae, which celebrate ritual practices of time (Stuart 1995: 404-405, note 8; Stuart 1996: 157).

The concept of a ritual “binding” is quite common in the religious systems of Mesoamerica.75 But how can we explain its symbolic relation to celebrating ritual practices of time? Cloth and paper are applied to wrap sacred objects like bundles. In the inscription on Stela 38, Naranjo (A5-B10) the lord Aj Wosal announces that he tied or wrapped three stelae at three different “period-ending dates” (;; respectively. The wrapped or tied stones are in the inscription associated with bundles or pih. That the wrapped stone sculptures are likened to bundles suggests that the ceremonial binding of the stone monuments shares the common Mesoamerican notion of a wrapped object where the cloth and paper were applied to protect a sacred essence. Stuart asserts that both the lord and the stones possess the quality “k’uhul”, “sacredness”. The nametag k’uhul lakamtun, “sacred big stones” indicates this quality. The idea of the k’altun ritual “... was to protect and contain the divine essence held within the stones that embodied time and its movement” (Stuart 1996: 157). The sacred bundle in Mesoamerica has been analysed and compared with the tradition of the North American cultures of the Plains and Pueblos by Werner Stenzel (Stenzel 1970).[9] Stenzel has found many correspondences in the use of bundles in this region. A sacred force or energy exists in the bundles, which are also associated with creation accounts. So far the comparison with the sacred stones is relevant. But, besides the fact that there is a great difference between a bundle, which can hold sacred objects, and a stone that for obvious reasons cannot, there is an essential disparity. It is the opening of the bundle, which constitutes the ritual because of the access to its sacred contents (Stenzel 1970: 351). Conversely, the k’altun-ritual consists of a closing (wrapping) of a stone. The stone and its sacred essence might have represented the completed time unit being symbolically contained by a binding or wrapping during the ritual practice of time. This symbolic ritual technique is also used in other cultures related to different time computations. For instance, among the contemporary Ch’orti’, there is a notion of a tying of time at the end of a 260-day period. The Ch’orti’ also tie a knot on a cord at the end of each year of their life span thereby keeping count of their age. The Jfbaros use the same system in counting the days. The Nahuatl term xiuhmolpilli, “tying of the years”, marking the end of the 52-year calendar (Cf. part IV) is another indication of this concept (Girard 1949: 271-272; 1966: 262-263).

  • [1] Seler made this observation as early as 1899 (Morley 1920: 565).
  • [2] Grube originally identified the sign for tz’ap as “to plant” or “erect” of a tun, “stone”(Grube 1990b). Stuart has suggested that another verb, with the root wa’ (“stand up”), mayalso have been applied to describe erections of stone monuments or stelae (Stuart 1996:152-153; Stuart 2002b).
  • [3] Chum tun (“seating of the stone”) is the expression for seating of a stone at a “periodending date” in the inscriptions of these cities.
  • [4] There have been excavated 18 “Giant Ajaw” stone discs in Caracol, each has a coefficient and the day-name Ajaw od the 265-day calendar inscribed. The earliest date on the“Giant Ajaw” stone discs is 2 Ajaw i. e. on or 495 ad; the last is 7 Ajaw, orthe ending of 830 ad. An identification of individual winikhaabs is thus made. The samesystem of reckoning time is found in The Books of Chilam Balam accounting the k’atun(winikhaab) (1-13 Ajaw) (Martin and Grube 2000: 88-89).
  • [5] —kul is a classifier for counting (Stuart 2005: 92).
  • [6] This example derive, however from highland Guatemala, which is outside the classicMaya region. Still, it represent an interesting parallel.
  • [7] Wrapped or bound stone monuments also appear on vessels (Stuart 1995: 404-405,note 8). Looper has observed that there is a depiction of a clothing of a stela on K718 (Kerr1989: 40; Looper 1995: 11). But this sacrificial scene does not appear to be associated with ak’altun-ritual.
  • [8] Aldana and Stuart (Aldana 2001: 8, note 25) have located another expression wherethe transitive verb k’al is associated directly with a time period, k’in, or “day” in the formulak’alk’in: “... we have the remains of a verb that works analogously to a verb very commonthroughout the inscriptional record: that of the period end, k’altun ..., the tun element hasbeen replaced by k’in, the glyph for the sun, producing a probable reading of k’alk’in. Sincethe k’altun glyph marks the completion of tuns (periods of 360 days) it makes sense for thek’alk’in glyph to mark the completion of solar periods” (Aldana 2001: 8).
  • [9] Cf. also Stenzel, Werner. Das Heilige Bundel in Mesoamerika. Ph.D. dissertation,University ofVienna. 1967. The ceremonial techniques of wrapping and binding in variousMesoamerican religious traditions, but with no relevance to ritual practices of times, hasbeen explored in Guersney and Reilly (2006).
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