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Tortuguero Box Tortuguero Box
Mexico, Late Classic Maya
5 x 1.25 inches
AD 600-900


The Wooden Offering Container of Aj K'ax B'ahlam of Tortuguero
Marc Zender and Karen Bassie
Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary

This intriguing artifact is comprised of two parts: an elongated rectangular container and its lid which are both fashioned from hardwood (probably sapodilla). The base sits on four small feet, and has a raised inner lip that allows the lid to sit securely on top. Although it is a mere 15.3 cm long (6 inches), 3.54 cm (1.72 inches) wide and 4.37 cm high (1.39 inches), a full length portrait of a Maya lord and 44 hieroglyphic signs are carved on the top, sides and bottom of the box. As was a common practice in the Maya area, red hematite was rubbed onto its outer surface.

The box was first published by Michael Coe (1974), who worked out much of the calendrics and substantial portions of the main text. Although unprovenanced, Coe profitably compared the inscriptions on the box with those of Tortuguero, Tabasco, and was able to demonstrate its affiliation with that site. Matthew Looper (1991) has also contributed important details to our understanding of the box's text, including the death date of the Tortuguero king B'ahlam Ajaw, and the first approximations of the name of his successor, Ik' Muyil Muwaahn II. As we understand the text today, the main protagonist was one Aj K'ax B'ahlam (the lord illustrated on the cover), who held an important secondary office under the patronage of the late 7th-century Tortuguero king 'Ik' Muyil Muwaahn II. Interestingly, the text actually concludes with the date of manufacture of the box, October 14, A.D. 681 ( 9 Eb' 15 Ceh) and names it the yotoot mayij or "offering container" of Aj K'ax B'ahlam himself.

As depictions in ancient art assure us, the Maya produced vast numbers of sculpted wooden artifacts. Sadly, few have survived the high humidity and moist soils of the region. As Michael Coe (1974) has suggested, the Tortuguero box may well have been found in an arid environment, such as a dry cave. This was certainly the case with a plain wooden box excavated at Actun Polbilche' in Belize (Pendergast 1974), and with a series of plain and carved wooden boxes recently discovered near the community of Alvaro Obregón, Tabasco (Anaya, Guenter and Mathews 2001, Guenter and Zender 2002; Skidmore 2002).

A large number of secondary lords are illustrated in Maya art and referenced in hieroglyphic texts. These lords carry specific titles referring to the offices they held and the various functions they performed. Aj K'ax Bahlam's office is represented by a supernatural bird wearing a plain, paper headband. A number of suggestions regarding the nature of this enigmatic office have been made, ranging from "royal messenger" to "learned man" to "scribe". There can be little doubt that holders of this title were high-ranking courtiers, for they appear in numerous carved and painted Maya throne room scenes (see below). At the present time, however, no secure decipherment of this glyph exists and the issue is perhaps best left unresolved until more evidence comes to light.

Thankfully we stand on somewhat firmer ground when it comes to the function of wooden boxes in Classic times. As mentioned above, the Tortuguero box is actually labeled a yotoot mayij, "offering house" or "offering container" (glyphic yo-OTOOT-ti 'U-ma-yi-ji), suggesting that it functioned to "house" ritually-important offerings or implements used in such offerings. Archaeologically excavated examples of such boxes, while scarce, nevertheless assist in clarifying what is meant by this phrase. For instance, a wooden box excavated at Actun Polbilche' contained a stingray spine, a bone needle, a bone perforator, an obsidian flake, as well as a number of other items associated with bloodletting (Pendergast 1974). The dry cave environment had in this instance preserved both container and contents, but what of boxes and bloodletting equipment interred in other contexts? Might it be that tight clusters of stingray spines and other bloodletting implements found in tombs such as Piedras Negras burials 5 and 13 (W. Coe 1959: 64-7, figs. 56, 64; Houston et al. 1998: 18) may quite simply comprise the remaining cargo of such wooden boxes, their erstwhile container having rotted away long ago? Either way, given the long, narrow dimensions of the Tortuguero box, it too would have been an appropriate container for bloodletting implements. Evidence to support this contention can be found on a number of Yaxchilan lintels, which illustrate complex rituals that include bloodletting with stingray spines, obsidian lancets and thorn-studded ropes. Yaxchilan Lintels 6 and 43 actually depict lords carrying wooden boxes very similar to that under discussion here (CLICK HERE TO VIEW FIGURE 1 and CLICK HERE TO VIEW FIGURE 2), and the latter lintel clearly associates a box held by king Bird Jaguar IV with a bloodletting bowl and rope held by one of his junior wives, Lady Mut B'ahlam (David Stuart, personal communication, 2000). Taken together, the archaeological, iconographic and epigraphic evidence is compelling: such wooden boxes were an important class of ritual object, probably serving to house bloodletting implements and other sacrificial paraphernalia.
Figure 1

Figure 2
Click on images above for larger view.

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