Maya Greenstone Glyph Pendant
Classic, ca. A.D. 250-800
Jade or jadeite
height 2in (4.8cm)
Carl S. Dentzel, former director of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, acquired ca. 1940-50
American Private Collection
The Dentzel Maya Greenstone Prismatic Bead
The style and quality of the carving is in keeping with Maya jades of the Classic period. It is whole, in good condition, nicely polished and of pleasing color. It is possibly (though unlikely) jadeite, but hard to tell from a photograph.
Comprising three glyphs:
(Top): The Maya numeral 9 and an indeterminate head, with outlined lips and large round eye (apparently divided vertically into a "pupil and "white"). The lower part of the head has a "mirror mark" or "god mark" similar to the infixed "darkness" marks we are accustomed to seeing on the lower right corner of 'head' glyphs. The upper right corner of this head is decorated by three square outlines inside each other, each placed into the extreme upper right. This design, while not common as an indicator for 'hair', is common enough that it seems to indicate generic 'hair'. There are no distinguishing marks on this head to clarify a possible reading: I would expect a "chaak diadem" or a "Xbalanque pelage" of a "moon goddess lock of hair" or other diagnostic feature, to indicate how to read this head. There is also a thin 'underline' separating this glyph from its immediate neighbor below. One might take this for a 'separation bar' framing the glyph and setting it off from the next one, but there are several other glyphs on this bead, and none of them are so separated.
At this point, several anomalous features suggest this is not a 'real' glyph, but rather an 'impression' of one, by an admiring but illiterate artist'.
(Middle): The lower right of this block is occupied by a 'crossbands' ringed on three sides with a dotted arch. It is just barely possible that the broken right of dots is the syllable /mo/, although one almost never sees this ring incomplete, as here. The assemblage vaguely resembles the glyph for "shield" (which also contains a ring of dots), though this one lacks the usual corner elements, and I have never seen a "shield" with this 'crossbands' central element. In my opinion it is not the word "shield". Above it are a pair of squarish bagel-shaped glyphs resembling the common "ajaw" superfix. The "emblem glyph" title that often follows the name of a king would be of this form, though the "ajaw" superfix would contain more details to distinguish it. (That is, the wider right-hand portion is always more complex). The left part of this block has two hollow dots, one of these surrounded by a quarter-arc of the same 'dotted arch' we see around the 'crossbands'. In the lower space between these and the so-called shield are two solid dots. These might represent a numeral "two" (thus yielding the reading, "two 'shields'" or "two 'shield-lords'"?), except they are distinctly different in size, the dots in numerals are always carefully regulated in size.
The anomalous features confirm my previous assessment. This is not in anyway a readable glyph.
(Bottom): This appears at first to contain on the left, a numeral "10" (two vertical bars), followed by a number of abstract segments. For me, they resolve in to a 'face' looking rightwards (which is backwards to Maya writing direction), his 'hair' braided or beaded into seven sausage-shaped segments. Again, I cannot tell what ten items it might be recording. If this were a complete Mayan inscription, it ought to have a verb and a subject ... and I cannot figure out if any of these signs fit the role.
This side contains two glyph-blocks, one over twice the size of the other, and irregularly-shaped, more like an illustration than a glyph. This irregular form appears to illustrate the head of a serpent (with a flower growing from his nose like we see at Izapa), and with a vestigial lower jaw. Above it is a circle decorated with a ring of 9 dots. This might be a /mo/ glyph, except the /mo/ always has a central circle or dot. This 'crocodile head' faces upward, as it we are supposed to 'read' this panel horizontally, rather than vertically, like the other sides.
This represents three "Tzolkin dates", each with anomalous numerical coefficients. (The Tzolk'in is the 260-day calendar common to all Mesoamerican peoples.) Ostensibly, the numerals are all "3"; so the panel records, 3 Imix, 3 Lamat, and 3 Ajaw respectively. (Imix is the first day of the Maya week, Ajaw the 20th and last, and Lamat the 8th). But these numerals are a mixture of hollow and solid dots. They form a pattern: the bottom "date" has a hollow dot at the bottom (which the Maya never do; it should be in the center), while the middle "date" has the top two dots hollow (which the Maya also never do; they should flank the solid dot), and the top has all three dots hollow. (This is also anomalous. They are almost always all solid...).
This appears to have been copied from a table of Maya Tzolk'in dates, but by an illiterate carver who did not even understand the numbers.
There appear here to be three glyphs of different sizes. The first is a normal numeral 13 (here properly drawn with solid dots). The second most closely resembles a "zero". In this context and arrangement, it should read "260", i.e., "13 x 20, plus 0x 1". So far, so good. The third glyph most closely resembles a "k'atun" glyph, i.e., the glyph for "20 years". So this may record a quantity of 260 k'atuns (i.e. Bak'tuns, the length of a "Great Cycle" which is just now coming to an end). Cool! However, ancient Maya scribes never recorded this period like that. They would have said, "13 Bak'tuns" rather than "260 k'atuns" ... This oddball phrasing might be comparable to our saying "240 months" instead of "20 years." Also, the top of the "k'atun" sign is anomalous. The top should be symmetrical, with two 'comb' forms flanking a 'stone' sign. Here there is no 'stone' sign in the center, and the left 'comb' contains an infix of a quartered circle, which might be a misinterpreted 'stone' sign.
Mark Van Stone, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History
Chula Vista, California