Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Revision to the Birth date of K'an Chitam of Tikal

On a recent trip to Tikal I had some time to look over a few of the monuments in the stela museum at the visitor's center. One of the most intriguing monuments available for viewing is Stela 40, discovered in 1996 (Valdés, Fahsen, and Muñoz Cosme 1997). This monument was dedicated in A.D. 468 (, 6 Ahau 8 Zodz) and was a monument clearly modeled after the more famous Stela 31. The front of Stela 40 (Figure 1) portrays the king, K'an Chitam, while the sides portray his parents, Sihyaj Chan K'awiil II and Lady Ahiin. The rear of the stela (Figure 2) contains a long hieroglyphic text, but sadly the inscription is quite eroded and the lower section of the monument is broken away and missing. This damage has left many questions about the inscription, although there are three dates that clearly serve as anchors to the narrative of the text, one in each of the double columns.

Fig. 1: Drawing of Tikal Stela 40 front by Fernando Luin
Fig. 2: Drawing of Stela 40 back by Fernando Luin

The first date is found at the beginning of the text, from Glyphs A1 through B10, and consists of the Initial Series dedicatory date of the monument:, 6 Ahau G9 8 Zodz, which corresponds to June 17, 468 in the 584283 GMT correlation. The third date is the accession date of K'an Chitam. It has been read as ( 4 Caban 15 Xul (Valdés, Fahsen, and Muñoz Cosme 1997:45, Grube and Martin 2000:II-39). However, the proper G# for this date is G6, while G1 is recorded. The interior details of the tzolkin for this date are totally eroded so it is also possible that this accession date is actually ( 3 Eb 15 Xul. Each of these possibilities entails one error, either an additional dot for the tzolkin coefficient or a completely erroneous G#, and while one may suspect that it was more likely for the ancient Maya to mess up the less-common G# than the ultra-important tzolkin, it has to be noted that the earlier date would place the accession date of K'an Chitam only half a year after the date within Burial 48 (, 4 Oc).

Figure 3: Rough sketch of Glyphs C10-C13 from Tikal 40 by the author.

What most caught my attention on this last trip to Tikal, however, was the Distance Number that preceded the date in the central double-column on the back of Stela 40 (Figure 3). The date is eroded but easily reconstructable as ( 8 Ahau G2 18 Zodz (July 6, 434). The Distance Number that precedes this date must lead from an earlier date, which is missing due to damage at both the top of the C-D double column, and as well as at the bottom of the monument. However, double column A-B refers in its entirety to the events of the dedicatory Period Ending date of the monument, and we can reconstruct a single missing date, Date 2. The remaining text above the Distance Number in double column C-D includes the names and titles of both Sihyaj Chan K'awiil II and Lady Ahiin, who are shown on the sides of the stela in positions indicating their parentage of K'an Chitam. Given their prominent mention in relation to the event of Date 2 it is a reasonable assumption that this event was K'an Chitam's birth. This appears to be the reasoning that underlies Martin and Grube's suggested birth date for K'an Chitam in Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (Martin and Grube 2008:37). The date they suggest is, 8 Imix 14 Zac and this date is derived by subtracting the Distance Number in Glyphs C10-C11 from Date 3, the clear ( 8 Ahau 18 Zodz date. The Distance Number is written with bar-and-dot numerals attached to head variant glyphs for the periods of time. The coefficients of these glyphs are clearly 19, 15, and 18. The heads for the periods of time these numbers are associated with, however, are quite eroded and in Luin's original drawing are not easily identified.

Martin and Grube's proposed birth date assumes that the Distance Number here is read in normal order; that is, beginning with the smallest period and proceeding to the larger ones: kins, uinals, and tuns. The Distance Number they thus view as 18.15.19 (Grube and Martin 2000:II-38). However, examining the actual monument I noticed that the head in Glyph C10 is quite clearly the head variant of the tun glyph. This head is a long-beaked bird with a skeletal lower jaw and this beak can quite easily be seen in my attached sketch (Figure 3). The head variant in Glyph C11 also works much better, in my opinion, as the head of a monkey with a headdress, which is the standard head variant for kins. It should be noted that while Distance Numbers normally read in ascending order, the reverse is not unknown, and in examples such as on the alfardas of Palenque's Cross Group temples, the descending order Distance Numbers seem to add prominence and emphasis to the calendrics.

If I am reading this Distance Number correctly, then, the earlier date, which should correspond to the birth date of K'an Chitam, must be, 13 Ik 0 Ceh, or November 30, 414. This is only a year earlier than the proposal of Grube and Martin, and makes K'an Chitam a 19 year old when he first assumed power as a junior lord, rather than an 18 year old. K'an Chitam would have been born when his father had only been on the throne of Tikal for 3 years. Sihyaj Chan K'awiil II must have been quite a young man upon his accession, given his 44 year-long reign, but he could not have been a boy if he was already fathering children only a few years after assuming power. Thus, this information from Stela 40 provides insights into the age of Sihyaj Chan K'awiil II, even when his birth date remains unknown. It is clear that Stela 40 well deserves a more detailed re-examination and there is every reason to believe that such a reanalysis could provide a lot of new information about this fascinating period of Tikal's history.


I would like to thank Mat Saunders, Jamaal Crawford and crew for transportation from Tikal, as well as Marc Zender for checking the monument to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me.


Grube, Nikolai, and Simon Martin
2000     Tikal and Its Neighbors. In Notebook for the XXIVth Maya Hieroglyphic Forum at Texas, March 2000, pages II-1 - II-78. The University of Texas at Austin.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube
2008     Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Valdés, Juan Antonio, Federico Fahsen, and Gaspar Muñoz Cosme
1997     Estela 40 de Tikal: Hallazgo y lectura. Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala, Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional, Guatemala City.