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Itzamnaaj Bahlam III

ITZAMNA:J?-BAHLAM. Drawing and transcription after Martin and Grube (2008).


Maya ruler of Yaxchilan; also known as Shield Jaguar the Great, Itzamnaaj Bahlam II, Shield Jaguar I and Shield Jaguar II. Reigned AD 681-742.

Acceded: 9.12.9.8.1 5 Imix 4 Mak (October 20, 681).

Died: 9.15.10.17.14 6 Ix 12 Yaxk'in (June 15, 742).

Father: Bird Jaguar III.

Mother: Lady Pakal.

Wives: Lady K'abal Xook, Lady Sak Biyaan and Lady Ik' Skull of Calakmul.

Son: Bird Jaguar IV.

Monuments: Stelae 13, 14, 15, 16?, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 23; Lintels 4, 23, 24, 25, 26, 44, 45, 46 and 56; Hieroglyphic Stairway 3; Altars 7, 12 and 22; Dos Caobas Stela 1.

Itzamnaaj Bahlam III is referred to as "the Great" because he reigned for over sixty years, reasserted Yaxchilan's power along the upper Usumacinta River by means of an impressive series of military triumphs, and left his lasting mark on the kingdom with a magnificent architectural and monumental program. Amazingly, he did not even begin this legacy in stone until he was in his seventies and had already ruled Yaxchilan for over forty years (Martin and Grube 2008:123). It seems reasonable to conclude that there had been some major shift in the kingdom's external relations.

To recapitulate the relevant background, Yaxchilan ruler Knot-eye Jaguar I had been captured by Piedras Negras around the year AD 518 (ibid.:120-121). His brother and successor K'inich Tatbu Skull II seems to have recovered from this reversal to the extent of recording the earlier glories of the kingdom in the lintels that were eventually reset in Structure 12 (ibid.:121). But then for a period extending from 537 to the beginnings of Itzamnaaj Bahlam's own monument program in about 723, there is but a single surviving contemporaneous monument (Stela 2 from 613) (ibid.:121). This includes the entire reign of Itzamnaaj Bahlam's father Bird Jaguar III, a dearth which Itzamnaaj Bahlam's son Bird Jaguar IV saw fit to address by manufacturing monuments ex post facto for his grandfather (ibid.:122-123, 129).

Mary Miller has suggested that this hiatus can best be explained by Yaxchilan's subjugation to Piedras Negras (ibid.:123). And it may be significant in this regard that the end of the silence coincides with evidence that Yaxchilan felt strong enough to lash out against its putative former overlord: Piedras Negras Stela 8 relates that a sajal of Itzamnaaj Bahlam was captured in 726 (ibid.:123).

The retreat of foreign powers from effective intervention along the Usumacinta may have contributed to the liberation of Yaxchilan, and relief from tribute payments to one overlord or another would have meant that the lucrative tolls on riverine traffic made possible by Yaxchilan's location in its horeshoe bend of the river could be applied to Itzamnaaj Bahlam's ambitious building program (ibid.:123).

This ruler's military triumphs between 681 and 732 are recorded in the lintels and hieroglyphic steps of Temple 44 and the stelae of Temple 41 (ibid.:123-124). Before his accession he captured Aj "Nik," a lesser lord of Maan or Namaan, and thereafter styled himself "Master of Aj 'Nik'" (ibid.:124). Other captures with their dates are Aj Sak Ichiy Pat (689), Aj K'an Usja of Buktuun (713), Aj Popol Chay of Lacanha (729) and a lord of Hix Witz (732) (ibid.:124).

Inscriptions relate the Lacanha and Hix Witz captures to earlier successes against these sites by predecessors Knot-eye Jaguar and Bird Jaguar III, respectively (ibid.:124). By 732, Itzamnaaj Bahlam was in his mid-to-late-eighties, so the actual capturing was almost certainly done by his subordinates (ibid.:124).

Under Itzamnaaj Bahlam, Yaxchilan's overlordship extended to Dos Caobas to the east, La Pasadita on the northern side of the Usumacinta and El Chicozapote on the southern, the latter only a dozen or so kilometers from the Piedras Negras subsidiary El Cayo (ibid.:125-126). The shifting nature of political control along the upper Usumacinta can be seen in the fact that Itzamnaaj Bahlam held sway over Lacanha and Bonampak from time to time during his reign, but these sites were known to be under the control of Tonina around 715 and then Sak Tz'i' by 726 (ibid.:126).

Itzamnaaj Bahlam built Temple 23 for his wife Lady K'abal Xook and Temple 11 for his younger spouse Lady Sak Biyaan. A third wife, Lady Ik' Skull, was the mother of his eventual successor Bird Jaguar IV (ibid.:131).

Temple 23's Lintel 25 shows Lady K'abal Xook conjuring a serpent-centipede hybrid in Mexican style from the jaws of which emerges a warrior wearing a mask of the Teotihuacan Storm God (ibid.:125). Elsewhere Teotihuacan symbolism is associated with the foundation of royal lines; here it seems to represent a re-foundation on the part of Itzamnaaj Bahlam of the Yaxchilan dynasty as a resurgent and independent entity (ibid.:126). Significantly, he built Temple 23 before his "war memorial" Temple 44 (ibid.:126).

Itzamnaaj Bahlam III may have been as old as ninety-nine when he died (ibid.:126). His mother, Lady Pakal, had also lived to be at least 98 (ibid.:122).

Temple 33, the construction of which was probably begun by Itzamnaaj Bahlam's son and finished by his grandson, may have served as a memorial shrine for Itzamnaaj Bahlam; his image, carved larger than lifesize, was seated in the central chamber (where it remains today, albeit with the head separate from the body) (ibid.:132-133). It might once have served as a "cult" statue for veneration rituals (ibid.:132). The court directly in front of Temple 33 held a richly appointed tomb (ibid.:132). However, the lavish contents of Tomb 2 in Temple 23 — including stingray spines and carved antler awls with glyphs naming Itzamnaaj Bahlam and Lady K'abal Xook — suggest that the mature male interred within is Itzamnaaj Bahlam himself (ibid.:126).

The foregoing is based on Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube (2008:120-126, 129, 170, 181-183). Their sources include Mary Miller (1991) for Itzamnaaj Bahlam's "war memorial" and Yaxchilan's hiatus.


Possibly bearing on Martin and Grube's (2008:123) suggestion that the withdrawal of foreign players lay behind Yaxchilan's building boom are the following dates:

662: Joint ceremony of Piedras Negras and Calakmul, followed six days later by Piedras Negras "star war" attack against Santa Elena, as recorded on Piedras Negras Ruler 2's Stela 35 (Simon Martin, personal communication 2004).

692: Tonina "star war" defeat of K'inich Kan Bahlam of Palenque (Martin and Grube 2008:181-182).

695: Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk' of Calakmul defeated by Jasaw Chan K'awiil of Tikal (ibid.:45, 110-111).

711: Capture of K'inich K'an Joy Chitam of Palenque by Tonina (ibid.:183-184).

714: K'inich K'an Joy Chitam appears in an inscription at Piedras Negras (Stuart 2003 [online]).

723: K'inich Yo'nal Ahk of Piedras Negras enacts a ceremony under the auspices of some foreign power, possibly Palenque (Simon Martin, personal communication 2004). Itzamnaaj Bahlam III's building program now clearly underway (Martin and Grube 2008:123).

725: Palenque captures a sajal of Piedras Negras (ibid.:173).

726: Piedras Negras captures a sajal of Yaxchilan (ibid.:123).

To discuss briefly, evidence from the ballcourt program of captive sculptures at Tonina suggests that Palenque and Tonina had vied for control of the Usumacinta region in the years leading up to the ballcourt's dedication in 699, but Palenque's "star war" defeat by Tonina may have diminished its appetite for distant entanglements as early as 692 (ibid.:170, 181-183). And the capture of Palenque ruler K'inich K'an Joy Chitam by Tonina in 711 might equally have curbed Palenque's military assertiveness.

But K'inich K'an Joy Chitam appears in an inscription at Piedras Negras in 714, suggesting that he retained some ability to forge political relationships (Stuart 2003 [online]). And a military captain of the next Palenque king, K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb III, is known to have captured a sajal of Piedras Negras ruler Yo'nal Ahk II in 725 (Martin and Grube 2008:173).

This leads Simon Martin (personal communication 2004) to suggest that the foreign power under whose auspices K'inich Yo'nal Ahk enacted a ceremony in 723 (as recorded in an eroded inscription on Piedras Negras Stela 8) might conceivably have been Palenque rather than Calakmul, the apparent sponsor of Piedras Negras in the time of K'inich Yo'nal Ahk's father, Ruler 2. Indeed, the recorded defeats of Calakmul by Tikal in 695 and again at some point between 733 and 736—and its consequent withdrawal from effective intervention along the Usumacinta—might have been a key contributory factor in the liberation of Yaxchilan.

Palenque's capture of a sajal from Piedras Negras in 725, together with the capture of a sajal from Yaxchilan by Piedras Negras in 726, might even be seen as implying concerted action by Palenque and Yaxchilan against Piedras Negras in the absence of its sponsor. Still more speculatively, to the extent that K'inich K'an Joy Chitam had gained his freedom from his Tonina captors by becoming their vassal (Martin and Grube 2008:171), the Palenque king's involvement at Piedras Negras in 714 might even suggest that Tonina had some oblique role to play in the vacuum left by Calakmul's withdrawal from the region.

Roberto Garcia Moll (2004:270) has identified Tomb 2 of Temple 23 as burial place of Itzamnaaj Bahlam the Great, while the centrally placed Tomb 3 is that of his queen, Lady K'abal Xook. (The fact that Lady K'abal Xook's name glyphs were inscribed on some of the objects found in Tomb 2 has led to some confusion in the literature as to which tomb held the female remains.) Garcia Moll (2004:269) observes that "Tomb 2 belonged to an adult male between the ages of 45 and 49," adding the following footnote (2004:284, n. 24):

The question of the age of the individual in Tomb 2 has arisen, along with the age of the individual buried in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. In both cases epigraphers assign the deceased the age of 80, whereas the bones reveal a different age.

Forensic experts, however, have confirmed the advanced age of the interment from Palenque (see Mesoweb report). With reference to Tomb 2 and its occupant, Garcia Moll (2004:270) details:

At the northwestern end of the tomb, near the individual's feet, there was a large group of objects associated with auto-sacrifice, which must have once been contained in a small bundle. These included two bivalve shells, one ceramic bowl, 78 stingray spines, eight stingray spines carved with glyphs, five flint knives, three prismatic blades, three shell pendants, seven worked bone awls, three deer antler awls carved with glyphs, three worked bones, and five plain awls.

— 2009 Joel Skidmore