Friday, March 16, 2018


This image of a Classic Period vessel (specifically dated to between
600 AD and 900 AD) shows a scribe holding a container of paint. It comes from the
Mexican state of Campeche. From Yale University Art Gallery.
Ah tz'ib (also spelled ah tz'ib and ah ts'ib) -- a translation of this is "he who writes or paints." It is one of the terms the ancient Maya used for scribes. Scribes worked different kinds of materials to make images as well as inscriptions. They used their artistic skills to express information, including the activities of their rulers.

Job as a Scribe
A page from the Madrid Codex.
From An Introduction to the Study
of the Maya Hieroglyphs.
Scribes made messages and pictures with materials like limestone and stucco as well as in codices. Scribes got to be kind of artistic when it came to which version of glyphs to pick. (Archaeologists have found artifacts that scribes put their names on -- signing them. There are also artifacts where the scribes put in their family history too!) 

A page from the Dresden Codex.
From An Introduction to the Study
of the Maya Hieroglyphs.
Part of being a scribe meant learning a lot of different things . Scribes learned the calendar system, social rituals, different kinds of art, math, scientific information, and history as well as religious rituals and myths. They learned the language used by elites: and this was the language they wrote in -- though there are times when they slip into other ancient Maya languages. (These slips are thought to have been slips into the scribes' native languages.)

In the Late Classic, archaeologists know there were ranks for scribes. (And scribes could even have more than one title.) One title with a lot of status was aj kuju'un (spelled other ways, including ah k'u hun.) One translation of this term is "he of the holy books" and could mean something like "royal librarian." Only really good scribes were given this title. Scribes who had this title may have had a lot of responsibility -- they may have done things like make treaties, train other scribes, keep track of tribute, watch over rituals, and do marriage negotiations. They may also have been astronomers.  (Another of the titles in the Late Classic was itz'at, ("sage," "wiseman.") It was title that gave a scribe a lot of status.)

In the Classic Period, scribes had another job too, which they shared with other royalty: the job of warrior.

Ancient Maya scribes made their ink wells out of conch shells, which they cut in half. As for what they drew with, they used pens made of quills for thin lines, and brushes for thicker lines. For stone, scribes, of course, used chisels, themselves made of stone. 

In ancient Maya art, there are certain features that you can search for to see if a person in the image you're looking at is a scribe. One is if there is stylized "paper" with spots that go out from under their arm. (An example of this "paper" can be seen in the image at the top of the post.) Another is if they're holding an ink well.

When drawn, an aj kuju'un has certain clothing. One is a sarong that is tied around the waist. The other was a headdress that these images wore. This headdress has a "stick bundle" set in a knot that is tied at the forehead; one of two items would be set into the headdress: a waterlily or a tool used for writing. (You may see a description of this headdress given to scribes in general.)

Consideration: Place in Society
There's some disagreement about whether or not scribes belonged to the elite -- they either may have been or were part of the elite. One view says that their families were royal: if you were a son of a ruler, but you weren't the "crown prince," then you would be a scribe. (However, there were also rulers who were scribes.)

Speaking of society, you may be wondering: were there female scribes?  This seems to depend somewhat. There isn't strong evidence for it, goes one line of thought. Another says that, among the scribes who were rulers, there were female scribe-rulers.

Gods Connected to Scribes
This vessel dates from around 700 AD to 800 AD, and was
made in Mexico. This side shows a monkey scribe god. (The
other shows K'awiil, who you may see called god K. From Yale
University Art Gallery.
Scribes -- and other ancient Maya who had jobs connected to art -- had monkey gods who were patron gods. These gods were believed in in both the Classic Period as well as -- at least in the northern lowlands -- the Postclassic Period.

Other than the monkey gods, the young aspect of the Maize God is thought to have been a patron god of scribes. Itzamná (god D)  A scribe himself, he was connected to lots of things, including scribes -- and may be a patron god of scribes. 

Other gods connected to scribes were the Paddler Gods and Pauahutun (god N.) A god known as the Fox God may have been a patron of scribes as well, though it may be he was really a patron of sculptors.

Google Books: "World Prehistory and Archaeology: Pathways Through"; Michael Chazan; 2018

Google Books: "Philosophy of the Ancient Maya: Lords of Time"; Alexus McLeod; 2018

Google Books: "Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya"; Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos; 2017

University of Texas at Austin: SALSA: "The Scribe’s Hand Betrays His Tongue: Diglossia Among the Ancient Maya"; Mary Kate Kelly

Google Books: "Encyclopedia of the ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey (editor); 2016

Mesoweb: Ancient Cultures Institute: The PARI Journal 16, Volume 2; 2015; "The Maya Goddess of Painting, Writing, and Decorated Textiles"; Timothy W. Knowlton

Google Books: "Space and Sculpture in the Classic Maya City"; Alexander Parmington; 2011

Google Books: "The Technology of Maya Civilization: Political Economy and Beyond in Lithic Studies"; Zachary X Hruby, Geoffrey E. Brasswell, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos (editors); 2011

Digital Collections at Texas State University: "Maya Scribes who would be Kings: Shamanism, the Underworld, and Artistic Production in the Late Classic Period "; Barry B. Kidder; December 2009

Google Books: "Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time"; Prudence M. Rice; 2007

Google Books: "The Ancient Maya" sixth edition; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

University of Florida: "Mayan Writing"; Andrea M. Ranada
(Power Point that downloads.)

University of Maine Hudson Museum: The Underworld

Yale University Art Gallery: Vessel with Scribes

Image Credits:
Yale University Art Gallery: Vessel with Scribes

Yale University Art Gallery: Bowl with a Monkey Scribe and K’awiil, God of Lightning

Project Gutenberg: "An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs" Sylvanus Griswold Morley; 1915