The stela's raised hieroglyphic inscriptions record a Calakmul king's accession to office, and Na Kan Ajaw's celebration of the completion of a k'atun (an approximately 20-year period). This celebration included the performance of rituals, and the erection of the stela itself.
Small incised inscriptions on the background and on Na Kan Ajaw's clothing and symbolic accessories may identify the individuals who designed and executed the sculpture. Signed artworks are rare in the Maya region, and unknown elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Clearly, artists were highly respected within Maya society; some were probably members of the aristocracy.
More Maya art can be found in the Ancient American gallery. The entry to the gallery is behind this relief, on the landing at the top of the steps.
The Context: In stone sculpture, Maya rulers celebrated the milestones of their reigns with flamboyant portraiture. So it is with this portrait of a royal woman, created to mark a crucial ritual event: passage of a twenty-year period known as the k'atun. She originally stood in a plaza between depictions of men, one probably her husband, ruler of the provincial Maya town El Perú (see photo).
According to hieroglyphic texts, her importance stemmed from her family background. She came from a ruling dynasty at another Maya center, Calakmul, that was more powerful than her husband's; through marriage, he probably gained potent allies. (Her ties to Calakmul are loudly proclaimed in the hieroglyphic text.) The dwarf by her side may be both a symbol of her family and a court attendant.
The Costume: Above the woman's carefully detailed hair rises a splendid headdress, its base the head of a mythological celestial being, which is surrounded by a lush fan of feathers, probably those of the iridescent, green quetzal bird. In part because of their color, which symbolized nature's fertility, such feathers were one of the two most prized materials-the other being greenstone (jade), from which her lavish jewelry (a huge ear flare, wristlets, and a necklace with carved heads) probably was made. Jade beads also may have formed the net that overlies her garment at the center of which is watery imagery: the head of a fish-like creature, a huge shell at the bottom of its face. Completing the costume are the royal scepter and shield she grasps in her hands.
The Hieroglyphic Text: The royal woman and man named in the following translation of the stela's main hieroglyph blocks belonged to the ruling family of Calakmul, a powerful Maya center. The man, called Jaguar Paw Fire, was Calakmul's distinguished king. The woman, whose name is undeciphered, is portrayed on the stela.
Four months and two days have passed since January 14, 686. Then came April 6, 686, when Jaguar Paw Fire, divine lord of Calakmul, grasped the scepter [of rulership/took the throne]. Six years, zero months, and thirteen days have passed since April 6, 686. Then came March 15, 692, when this great stone [the stela on display] was raised in his honor?the Royal Woman of Calakmul, the provincial lord, planted the passing of the k'atun [ended a twenty-year period] on March 15, 692.
(Based on the translation by Paul Wanyerka, a Cleveland-based Maya scholar.)